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NEW YORK - Seeking to position himself as the hawk of the 2012 presidential field, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty hammered at President Obama and Republican rivals Tuesday in his first presidential campaign speech on foreign policy.
Appearing at the Council on Foreign Relations, Pawlenty said Obama failed with a "timid, slow" response to the Arab Spring and warned his own party should not be "appealing to isolationist sentiments."
"America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal," Pawlenty said. "It does not need a second one."
Trailing in the single digits in polls and trying to turn the corner after a subpar debate performance in New Hampshire, Pawlenty is seeking to distance himself from front-runner Mitt Romney and rival Jon Huntsman, both of whom favor a quick drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.
Tuesday's speech was one of the first major policy pronouncements of the 2012 campaign, laying down a marker that will be a point of comparison to the rest of the field, including with his fellow Minnesotan, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose views on foreign policy are not well known.
Pawlenty backers hope the speech will help establish the foreign policy credentials of a Midwestern governor with little real-world experience in international affairs. "It illustrates the depth of his knowledge and preparedness for the White House," said former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Pawlenty supporter who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He knows who his friends are, and he knows who is enemies are."
In past speeches and a recent autobiography, Pawlenty notes that he has visited Minnesota National Guard troops in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and been briefed by military leaders in those countries. He has said defense spending is the one area of the budget he won't cut, something that's under consideration now by some debt-conscious Republicans in Congress.
"What is wrong is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world," Pawlenty said on Tuesday. "History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we'll save in a budget line item."
The challenge for Pawlenty, even if he can win the hawk mantle in the GOP field, is scoring points on foreign policy in a campaign season dominated by domestic and economic issues.
Max Boot, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Pawlenty appears to be breaking away from other candidates that hew closer to polls showing a war-weary public.
Pawlenty, he said, "showed that he is almost alone among Republican leaders now standing firm for the foreign policy of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan of not giving in to the siren call of isolationism."
Pawlenty is not the first to call out Republicans for isolationism. His remarks echoed those of 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who criticized the GOP field on "Meet the Press" last week for preaching isolationism on Afghanistan and Libya.
But Huntsman, a U.S. ambassador to China under Obama, pushed back against Pawlenty's charge.
"America can best project strength in the world when we are strong at home and able to take on our enemies where they are -- not when we are expending resources fighting expensive ground wars for which there is no defined exit strategy," Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said in a statement.
Pawlenty's speech also got a chilly response from Tea Party-backed Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul told the Huffington Post that labeling Republicans isolationists is "name calling," and that no one is proposing the United States pull back completely from the world stage.
Pawlenty said Obama "dithered" before calling for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's ouster, and he criticized Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for saying the Egyptian government was "stable" after protests began. Pawlenty also has called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
After his address, Pawlenty was asked if he was concerned new democratic governments in the Middle East would harbor greater anti-American sentiment than dictators who were removed.
"People didn't ask, 'What comes after Hitler?'" Pawlenty responded.
Pawlenty laid out his vision of the Middle East into four kinds of countries: emerging democracies like Tunisia and Egypt, Arab monarchies like Jordan, hostile nations like Iran and then Israel.
On Israel, Pawlenty accused Obama of an "anti-Israel attitude" and said Israeli-Palestinian peace is further away now than when the president took office. "It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally."
Pawlenty's campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail later in the day pivoting off his speech, asking potential donors to help "stop President Obama's defeatist attitude."
Pawlenty is believed to be trailing Romney and Bachmann in fundraising totals, with the first major reporting deadline coming up Thursday.
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723