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[Jeffrey Goldberg] Tim Pawlenty girds for Romney, embraces Reagan

Here is something I’ve learned you shouldn’t say to candidates for next year’s Republican presidential nomination: “So, I guess you represent the John McCain-Lindsey Graham foreign-policy wing in this race.”

I made this observation the other day to Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, and he winced. It wasn’t a run of the mill wince; it was, as they say, an audible wince. McCain and Graham are both deeply crosswise with conservative activists, the sort of people who participate in caucuses in Iowa and vote in the New Hampshire primaries.

“I prefer that it not be that,” Pawlenty said, as his face clouded over. “I prefer that it be my own views that are referenced.” Later, he unaccountably returned to the issue. “I wish you could think of another way to describe this wing of the party, other than McCain and Lindsey Graham. I love John, but that’s like saying we’re embracing Nelson Rockefeller on economics.”

Before we met, in his sterile campaign headquarters in a downtown Minneapolis office building, I assumed that I would annoy Pawlenty most with the often-asked question about his toughness, or lack thereof. He is seen, at best, as a congenitally genial Minnesotan. At worst, he’s seen as something of invertebrate, a reputation he reinforced in the Republican debate when he declined repeated opportunities to say to Romney’s face what he had previously said outside his presence. (“Obamneycare” was the slur in question.)

But Pawlenty wasn’t perturbed when I asked whether he was up to the challenge of managing the U.S. relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence service, or of outmaneuvering the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He provided several reasons why he could handle such challenges.

“My record includes the first government shutdown in 150 years” in Minnesota, he said. “I set a record for vetoes. I allotted more money using executive powers out of the budget than the previous 142 years of governors combined. And I got an A rating from the tough-grading Cato Institute. There is no one in the field with that record of fortitude and strength.”

Pawlenty isn’t trimming his support for the American campaign in Afghanistan, even though voters seem eager for it to end. He’s frank in his desire to see the U.S. victorious in Libya (victory defined as a dead or exiled Muammar Gadhafi). He supports foreign aid as a tool of American power. And he is cool-headed and analytical about the need for the U.S. to support Pakistan.

“Are they double-dealing us? Of course,” he said, of Pakistan’s leadership. “Should we demand better behavior from them? Yes. But if you take away all the levers we currently have in trying to get better behavior from them, you may find our situation worse and the challenge bigger than what it is now.”

I then asked him why our national security demands victory in Libya, a country that poses no serious threat to the U.S. The intervention, after all, was motivated exclusively by humanitarian concerns.

“Initially, let’s say that was the case,” Pawlenty said. “A quick, decisive decision by Obama in days, not weeks, to impose a no-fly zone would have given us a very different result. But once the president of the United States says that Gadhafi must go, you just can’t let him sit there indefinitely and thumb his nose at us. He’s a third-rate dictator who has American blood on his hands.”

Pawlenty’s argument is not unpersuasive. “People who are thugs and bullies respect strength. They don’t respect weakness. And when you project a foreign policy that is equivocal, tardy, uncertain, noncommittal, unprioritized, unfocused and naive, you invite more mischief, more danger and more confrontation.”

Lately, some conservatives have taken to praising President Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon after the fatal Marine-barracks bombing in 1983. As George F. Will wrote, “When a terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines and other troops taught Reagan the folly of deploying them at Beirut airport with a vague mission and dangerous rules of engagement, he was strong enough to reverse this intervention in a civil war.”

Robert C. McFarlane, one of Reagan’s national security advisers, has called this reversal a tragic mistake. “One could draw several conclusions from this episode,” he wrote. “To me the most telling was the one reached by Middle Eastern terrorists, that the United States had neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack.”

I asked Pawlenty if he thought Reagan’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon was wrong. He went silent.

“Am I putting you in the uniquely uncomfortable position of criticizing Ronald Reagan?” I asked.

“I guess I would go back and say that my view, without referencing a particular president, is that once the United States commits to a mission, it’s really important that we prevail. Because when you don’t, it diminishes the respect and credibility and awe that other people view the United States with. And our goal here is to avoid as many future conflicts as possible by having our relative position be so strong and so unquestioned and so certain that nobody dare challenge us.”

Pawlenty left me with the impression that his unwillingness to confront Romney at the New Hampshire debate was aberrational. He is the candidate who seems most attuned to the threats posed by Iran, by global jihadism, by a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. His eagerness to stand up for a set of views that seems unpopular among many Republican voters suggests the presence of a spine.

Of course, his unwillingness to utter a bad word about Reagan, even in a case in which he obviously believes Reagan was wrong, suggests there are some conclusions that even the bravest Republicans are unwilling to make. 

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.