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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty accused President Barack Obama on Tuesday of a timid and incoherent response to the "Arab Spring" uprisings against autocratic rulers across the Middle East and North Africa.
"From Morocco to the Arabian Gulf, the escape from the dead hand of oppression is now a real possibility. Now is not the time to retreat from freedom's rise," Pawlenty said in what was billed as a major foreign policy address.
The former Minnesota governor, seeking to gain ground in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, said Obama had failed to carry out an "effective and coherent strategy" in response to the Arab Spring uprisings.
The Republicans hoping to challenge Obama, who is seeking re-election, often blast his handling of the economy but fault his handling of foreign policy as well.
"He's been timid, slow and too often without a clear understanding of our interests," Pawlenty told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The leader of the United States should never leave those willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of freedom wondering where America stands."
A popular revolt in Tunisia earlier this year spread to Egypt and unleashed a wave of pro-democracy protests movements that have convulsed governments in several countries including Libya, Syria and Yemen.
"If we're clear about our interests and guided by our principles we can help steer events in the right direction," Pawlenty said. "Our nation has done this in the past -- at the end of World War Two, in the last decade of the Cold War, in the more recent war on terror, and we can do it again."
Instead of pushing Middle East democracy, Pawlenty said Obama had "adopted a murky policy, he called it engagement."
The United States has taken part in NATO-led military action targeting the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Obama has been under pressure to not commit more resources to the NATO campaign in Libya because of deep U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and great budgetary restraints at home.
Pawlenty said the United States need to stop leading from behind in Libya and commit "America's strength to removing Gaddafi."
Pawlenty is battling to break out of the pack of Republican contenders for the party's 2012 presidential nomination, but was struck a blow this week when a Des Moines Register poll found he only had 6 percent support among Iowa Republicans.
This was far behind rivals Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who had 23 percent and 22 percent respectively.
Pawlenty said it is essential that the United States make clear its unabashed support for Israel and criticized Obama for treating the country "as a problem rather than and ally."
"Israeli-Palestinian peace is further away now than the day Barack Obama came to office. But that does not have to be a permanent situation. We must recognize that peace will only come if everyone in the region perceives clearly that America stands strongly with Israel," he said.
Pawlenty reserves some criticism for fellow Republicans as well, urging them to resist the temptation of isolationism.
Some Pawlenty opponents have raised questions about the U.S. continued fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
"America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal; it does not need a second one," he said.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Philip Barbara