Pawlenty criticizes Obama, GOP on foreign policy

By BETH FOUHY | June 28, 2011 | 11:15 AM EDT

NEW YORK (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty waded into foreign policy in the 2012 campaign Tuesday, warning Republicans not to "shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world."

Pawlenty, speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, leveled a scathing attack on President Barack Obama's handling of the turbulence in the Middle East and said the United States has a vital stake in the future of the region.

The former Minnesota governor made the case for robust U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He criticized Obama — saying he lacked a coherent strategy in the region, was slow to embrace the pro-democracy movements there and had coddled mullahs in Iran and dictators like Syrian President Bashar al Assad. And he slammed Obama for treating Israel like "a problem" rather than a democratic ally.

"We cannot underestimate how pivotal this moment is in Middle Eastern history. We need decisive, clear-eyed leadership that is responsive to this historical moment of change in ways that are consistent with our deepest principles and safeguards our vital interests," Pawlenty said.

But Pawlenty also took aim at rival Mitt Romney, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, and others in the party who have suggested the U.S. draw down its military presence in Afghanistan. Without mentioning the former Massachusetts governor by name, he said the GOP must resist pressure to cede U.S. leadership in world events.

"Parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments," Pawlenty said. "This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great."

House Republicans voted last week to deny Obama the authority to wage war against Libya but fell short in an effort to cut off funds for the operation. Pawlenty said he understood why they questioned Obama's mission there but said that shouldn't mean retreating from all conflicts.

"America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one," he said.

Pawlenty laid out several goals he said he would pursue as president. He said the U.S. should assist fledgling democracies like Egypt; press monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan on democratic reform; work to oust Assad and boost sanctions on Iran; and stand with Israel in the peace process while working to empower moderate Palestinian leaders.

Pawlenty has struggled to gain traction in the GOP presidential field against Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who formally announced her candidacy Monday.