NEW YORK — White House hopeful Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday that President Barack Obama has mishandled the "Arab Spring" democracy movements, while assailing some of his fellow Republicans for being too "isolationist."
In an address billed by aides as a major foreign policy speech, the former Minnesota governor highlighted what he called "the opportunities and the dangers we face today in the Middle East," and charged that Obama's policies have "failed" to bring the region closer to peace.
The president "has been timid, slow, and too often without a clear understanding of our interests or a clear commitment to our principles," Pawlenty told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
He said Obama "has failed to formulate and carry out an effective and coherent strategy in response" to the democracy movements.
"If we are clear about our interests and guided by our principles, we can help steer events in the right direction," Pawlenty said in staking out his foreign policy ground as Republicans launch their campaigns to oust Obama from the White House in 2012.
"Our nation has done this in the past -- at the end of World War II, in the last decade of the Cold War, and in the more recent war on terror -- and we can do it again."
But he also contended that "parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments."
"This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great," he said.
He noted that with the uprisings taking place offering the promise of greater democracy and prosperity in the Arab world, "the escape from the dead hand of oppression is now a real possibility.
"Now is not the time to retreat from freedom's rise," he added.
Republicans have condemned Obama for saying in public last month what had been private US policy: that 1967 territorial lines, with agreed land swaps, should be the basis for borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Pawlenty heaped more criticism on the Democratic president, charging that Obama has an "anti-Israel attitude."
"Today the president doesn't really have a policy toward the peace process. He has an attitude," Pawlenty said.
"He thinks Israel is the problem. And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel. I reject that anti-Israel attitude," he said.
"We must recognize that peace will only come if everyone in the region perceives clearly that America stands strongly with Israel."
The former governor, who trails Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in early polls, also condemned what he called Obama's silence in the face of the uprising sparked by Iran's contested 2009 election.
"When the Iranian ayatollahs stole an election and the people of that country rose up in protest, President Obama held his tongue," said Pawlenty.
"His silence validated the mullahs, despite the blood on their hands and the nuclear centrifuges in their tunnels," he added.
Obama spoke out days after the June 2009 vote in Iran, declaring himself "deeply troubled" by Tehran's crackdown on protesters but vowing to stick with what he termed "tough, hard-headed" outreach with "no illusions."
But his response to the Iranian turmoil was noticeably more muted than that of some of Washington's key allies as well as influential US lawmakers like Republican Senator John McCain.
Pawlenty's speech comes after Obama announced plans to withdraw 33,000 "surge" troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer, a step the former governor criticized.
It also follows former US envoy to China Jon Huntsman's formal announcement that he sought the nomination to take on his former boss, Obama, making him the Republican candidate with the most high-profile foreign policy credentials.
Pawlenty's comments come a day after firebrand congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a favorite of the archconservative Tea Party movement, formally launched her White House bid in Iowa, the site of an early political contest.
Bachmann has until now focused her attacks on Obama's domestic policies -- especially his landmark health care reforms -- but on Monday she too accused Obama of failing to stand up for Israel and confront America's enemies.
Pawlenty said the Obama administration failed to help the democratic movements in Egypt and Syria and that the current situation calls for Washington "to ratchet up pressure and speak with clarity."
"We need a president who fully understands that America never 'leads from behind," Pawlenty said.
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