WASHINGTON -- If former Minnesota governor and GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty was hoping for support from the Republican Tea Party wing after his foreign policy speech Tuesday, he was looking in the wrong place.
Tea Party favorites Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) both sided with the position voiced by Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman -- who is considered the moderate, or even liberal, Republican in the race -- over the more traditionally conservative Pawlenty.
In a demonstration of how much the Afghanistan debate has thrown political categories and alliances up in the air, Lee even said, "From time to time, I find myself agreeing one way or another with the president."
Pawlenty had spoken to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Tuesday morning, where he had slammed Republicans --- none by name -- for "trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments."
Pawlenty referred only passingly to Afghanistan, but he said his view is that a hasty troop reduction would signal retreat.
His speech focused on the ferment and political revolutions across the Middle East, offering advice on how the U.S. could support burgeoning democracies and pressure tyrannical regimes into reforming.
But the use of the word "isolationist" was unmistakably directed toward those who are saying the U.S. should withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan sooner rather than later.
"It is not wrong for Republicans to debate the timing of our military drawdown in Afghanistan," Pawlenty said. "What is wrong is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world."
"America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal," he added. "It does not need a second one."
Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, had outlined his position before Pawlenty even delivered his speech.
"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," said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller.
Huntsman, Miller said, thinks the solution to Afghanistan and the broader fight against terrorism "is not 100,000 troops nation-building in Afghanistan; it's special forces and intelligence officers in every corner of the globe."
Not only did the staunchly conservative Lee and Paul back Huntsman's more dovish view that U.S. troop presence should be dramatically and quickly reduced, they dismissed Pawlenty's criticism that some in the GOP are trending toward isolationism.
"It's not a valid term. It's a pejorative term. It's name calling," Paul said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "Isolationism would mean that you're nowhere any of the time and you're completely within a walled-in state. I don't know anybody who's for that."
Lee said he agreed with the sentiment that "we need to start moving fairly quickly to converting our presence in Afghanistan from a counterinsurgency presence to a counterterrorism presence."
President Obama himself is only planning to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from roughly 100,000 to just under 70,000 over the next 18 months, but Lee said he would favor "a much smaller presence there in the near-term future."
"I would think that would mean 10,000 to 30,000 troops," he said.
"We as a nation are realigning as people realize that we don't have enough money to continue an unlimited war," Paul said. "I think you're seeing a real healthy debate in the Republican party. I don't think the ideas on foreign policy are monolithic anymore."
Conservative foreign policy establishment, meet the debt hawks.
The disagreement over Afghanistan policy within the GOP is driven not only by concerns about the nation's $14 trillion debt, but is also rooted in a libertarian brand of Republican politics that views the U.S. role in the world as more limited. Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has been a leading spokesman for this view, and is promoting it as part of his own presidential platform, as he did in 2008.
For his part, Pawlenty said he is concerned about the signal that would be sent by backing down from a challenge.
"Our enemies in the War on Terror, just like our opponents in the Cold War, respect and respond to strength," Pawlenty said. "Sometimes strength means military intervention. Sometimes it means diplomatic pressure. It always means moral clarity in word and deed."
But there is no question that concerns about government size, spending and debt have swayed many conservatives to support or at least consider a less aggressive foreign policy. The political momentum on the right, for the time being, is on the side of the debt hawks.
Polls indicate the war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with most Americans, so candidates like Huntsman and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are appealing to a wide swath of voters -- Tea Party activists included -- by taking about reducing the U.S. troop commitment.
Pawlenty, already hurting in the polls and in the fundraising race, is either making a risky political calculation or taking a principled stand despite the mood of the moment. But that move may be, in the end, good politics.
"Kudos to Pawlenty for standing on principle. He is standing up for his party’s best tradition, which is represented by Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan -- not Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge," Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote Tuesday. "He is differentiating himself from the horde of poll-followers in today's GOP leadership ranks."
But even Reagan is criticized today for withdrawing U.S. Marines from Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines and other U.S. personnel. Pawlenty was asked this that move showed weakness on Reagan's part. Stuck between his own foreign policy views and the risk of being seen as criticizing a conservative icon, Pawlenty reportedly "went silent."