Congressional Republican leaders are playing it safe on Egypt so far, generally complimenting Obama’s handling of the protests. But the GOP’s 2012 contenders are starting to second guess the president. There’s Mike Huckabee, who is hitting Obama for being too quick to abandon Mubarak. (Just back from a visit to Israel, Huckabee reports “real shock and surprise down to the average on the street Israeli citizen at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a long standing friend to peace and stability President Mubarak.”) Newt Gingrich is bashing Obama for allegedly going soft on Islamist radicalism in general (though it’s not clear how that relates to what’s happening in the streets of Cairo). And while Tim Pawlenty’s own views seem to straddle between loathing for Mubarak’s dictatorship and concern for regional security, he’s criticizing Obama for an “inconsistent, bordering on incoherent” response to the crisis. Mitt Romney seems to have taken the gentlest line towards the White House so far, arguing this morning that Mubarak needs to go without finding grounds to criticize Obama’s performance.
This is a tricky place for the GOP candidates, and the way this debate plays out with tell us interesting things about how the Republican Party has changed on foreign policy since George W. Bush left office. As Joe notes below, Republicans have spent most of the post-9/11 era positioning themselves as the champions of freedom and democracy abroad. They have cast liberals as amoral realists guided by what you might call the soft bigotry of low expectations (or even racism, as Condi Rice once suggested) to argue that some people just aren’t ready for democracy. On the other hand, the GOP has also positioned itself as the true defender of Israel against a Democratic Party which, in this telling, obsesses over Israeli settlements and wants to negotiate with Israel’s mortal foes, Iran and Hizballah. Consider the way leading GOP 2012 contenders–Romney, Pawlenty, and soon Haley Barbour–have been visiting Israel to kiss Bibi Netanyahu’s ring. And right now Israel is more than a little anxious about the events in Egypt. If they’re looking to impress Netanyahu and emphasize their pro-Israel bona fides, then, the Republicans will couch their enthusiasm about Cairo’s revolution.
Not only are these two impulses in tension with one another, but there is the open question of what influence the GOP’s new Tea Party base will exert on foreign policy. It’s not clear that the Tea Party has anything like a coherent foreign policy. But it is apparent that the GOP base, drained by the cost in blood and treasure of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has developed a new isolationist streak over the past five or so years.
My guess is that in the near-term you’ll see a lot of Republican criticism of the Obama administration on process grounds– for being “incoherent,” in Pawlenty’s words, with a generalized critique that Obama hasn’t been a strong enough leader. But what will really matter for 2012 is, once the dust settles, what kind of government has emerged. An Islamic regime in Cairo could be a complete disaster for Obama, much as the Iranian revolution helped to do in Jimmy Carter. A peaceful and secular government could make Obama look like the statesman steward of a great historical advance in American values. More likely, we’ll wind up with something more ambiguous whose meaning will have to be litigated by our own democratic process.