A growing schism within Republican ranks over U.S. intervention abroad spilled over into the 2012 presidential campaign Tuesday, with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty urging elected leaders to resist what he called “isolationist sentiments.”
The comments were aimed at a slice of the GOP presidential field that has called for a reassessment of President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and a re-examination of the overall U.S. military posture around the globe.
“America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal,” Mr. Pawlenty said in staking out the hawkish position in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday. “It does not need a second one.”
While the GOP in recent years has been seen as the party more in favor of a robust military presence throughout the world, that calculation has been changed under Mr. Obama, who expanded the war in Afghanistan and this year committed U.S. forces to lead and then aid NATO in maintaining a no-fly zone over Libya.
Meanwhile, tight budgets at home have some Republicans worried that the country cannot afford those ongoing engagements on top of the existing costs of U.S. troops stationed throughout the world.
Among the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has suggested it’s time to rethink the mission in Afghanistan, while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., in his speech announcing his candidacy, called for a shift away from overseas conflict, saying it is “not that we wish to disengage from the world, but rather, that we believe the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home.”
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a longtime opponent of extensive U.S. engagement, is calling for big cuts to foreign assistance and is leading efforts to force Mr. Obama to withdraw U.S. forces from the Libya conflict.
“It is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party,” said Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow who suggested that part of what is going on is political jockeying as the candidates try to stake out positions that distinguish them from one another. “There’s always a danger that a Republican president might succumb to the siren song of isolationism and that’s why I think it is good Pawlenty is making a clear argument against it.”
Mr. Pawlenty is still looking to carve out his niche in the presidential race, as he has struggled to gain traction in early polls, despite rolling out some of the more far-reaching proposals of the campaign season, including an economic plan that aims to generate an average level of annual economic growth that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.
In his foreign policy speech, Mr. Pawlenty warned that some Republicans are trying to “outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments” and that history has shown how over the long run that “weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item.”
“Our enemies in the war on terror, just like our opponents in the Cold War, respect and respond to strength. Sometimes strength means military intervention. Sometimes it means diplomatic pressure. It always means moral clarity in word and deed,” he said. “That is the legacy of Republican foreign policy at its best and the banner our next Republican president must carry around the world.”
The campaign of Mr. Huntsman, who made waves with his recent call for accelerating the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, fired back after Mr. Pawlenty’s speech, saying the former Utah governor, who recently gave up his post as ambassador to China, believes the country’s ability to achieve its goals abroad depends on a more agile military posture.
“Our 21st-century enemy is even more scattered, and it requires a nimble, modern response that is reflective of the threat,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said. “That response is not 100,000 troops nation-building in Afghanistan; it’s special forces and intelligence officers in every corner of the globe. The tension has played out on Capitol Hill on Libya over the last month as many Senate Republicans have joined Democrats in embracing a more adventurous role there, while House Republicans have led the opposition to Mr. Obama’s deployment of American air power to that Middle Eastern nation.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 nominee, has criticized those who have opposed expanded U.S. involvement in Libya, and some of the GOP candidates for comments they made during a debate in New Hampshire, where Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said she doesn’t think there is a vital national interest in Libya. Mr. Romney said that when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, “we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.”
Other lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, continue to brush aside the isolationist label, calling it a pejorative term “used by people who don’t want to have a discussion about what is working or not in our foreign policy.”
“We need a more humble approach to foreign policy, one that does not include nation-building and being the world’s policeman,” Mr. Paul said. “Our country cannot afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rebuilding other nations while ignoring our crisis at home.”