Tim Pawlenty, the republican governor of Minnesota, presented his views on the Middle East and his contempt (natural for a Presidential candidate) for the current policy for the region adopted by the White House. Unsurprisingly, Pawlenty gave an over-simplified version of events that highlighted the importance of Israel and the evils of Iran while blasting President Obama for his strategy of engagement and his failure to turn against Assad in Syria. Andrew Exum has interesting reactions (including relating Pawlenty’s inspirational quotations to Brad Pitt) to the speech here and Matt Duss offers some ideas on the contradictions of the speech here. Personally, I found Pawlenty’s emphasis on Syria and Iran to be quite interesting. In some ways, Pawlenty shows himself to be quiet insightful, but in others the Governor reverts to what should be an antiquated neo-conservative line.
Pawlenty openly calls for the ouster of Assad in Syria (unlike Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, who is now buddy-buddy with the Syrian president) without giving any hint as to what he expects a post-Assad Syria to look like. Interestingly, Israel (whose interests Pawlenty puts above all else) echos the sentiments of many Syrians by fearing both discord and a more extremist government to follow Assad. Yet, Pawlenty pushes the connections between Syria and Iran as the main reason why Assad must be removed from power – despite the wishes of Syrians and Israelis alike:
Bashar al-Assad must go. When he does, the mullahs of Iran will find themselves isolated and vulnerable. Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally. If we peel that away, I believe it will hasten the fall of the mullahs. And that is the ultimate goal we must pursue. It’s the singular opportunity offered to the world by the brave men and women of the Arab Spring.
In other words, removal of Assad is not based primarily on the creation of a Syrian democracy, but on regime change, or at least isolation, in Iran. Removing Assad – Iran’s strongest Arab ally – would isolate Tehran and break the link between Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, thus destroying the ‘axis of evil.’ (Let us forget, for a moment, that unrest in Syria has caused Hamas to turn towards Egypt, whose move towards democracy and an independent foreign policy – a move supported by Pawlenty – has pushed the country towards, well, Iran.)
To be fair, this view is held by many others in the American foreign policy community (Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, has said that sanctions on Syria are designed to harm Iran, rather than punish Syria). It is debatable whether or not removing Assad is the best route for Syria, but the United States should not be basing its Syrian policy on protecting Israel or harming Iran. It should be based on what is best for the Syrian people; unfortunately, the Governor links progress in Syria with the fall of Iran.
In many ways, Pawlenty’s speech contradicts itself and gives misleading information (Salam Fayyad actually does appreciate the rule of law, Mr. Pawlenty…). Yet there is one point that the Governor struck upon that rings true. If the United States and its allies truly felt that it was time for Assad to go, extended sanctions targeting the business class could be employed to reduce support for the President. As I wrote yesterday, Assad has maintained significant support throughout the country, primarily amongst Sunni, urban elite who benefited from the various economic reforms that were enacted over the last decade. Putting sanctions in place that target the Sunni business elite could break the loyalty between the Sunnis and the Alawite-led government and shift the tide in protests. With the Syrian economy struggling, advanced sanctions could do real damage. Targeting civilians, though, is morally and legally dubious and would be a clear example of coerced regime change based on goals unrelated to the Syrian people.
Thus, when Pawlenty says “We need more forceful sanctions to persuade Syria’s Sunni business elite that Assad is too expensive to keep backing,” it is hard to imagine what type of sanctions he is talking about. Is he suggesting targeting the business elite? More importantly, Pawlenty does not clarify how his strategy would benefit the Syrian people and how chaos could be avoided after the removal of Assad.
Governor Pawlenty gave a lot to think about in his Middle East speech, but it seems he does not truly understand the main drivers of the Arab Spring. The governor says that the US should base its policy around a moral principle, but then goes on the insist that removing Assad is about Iran (and that Israel treats Palestinians fairly, but that is another story). Supporting democracy and human right in the Middle East, without exception, is basing a strategy on a moral principle. Pushing for regime change for unexplained reasons is not. Moreover, though Syria and Iran are allied, change in one does not mean change in the other. It is possible that removing Assad will be a positive outcome for the Syrian people and that it will happen in an organized and coherent manner, though that hardly equates to change in Tehran. Overall, Pawlenty’s insistence on removing Assad in order to pressure Iran without regard for the consequences is a terrible reversion to neo-conservative thought.
Photo from Daily Caller