CPAC and Egypt: A Missed Opportunity

02.12.11

CPAC and Egypt: A Missed Opportunity

02.12.11
Gage SkidmoreGage Skidmore

Ambassador John Bolton was one of two speaker at this years CPAC meeting to offer any substantative details on Egypt. His speech largely reflected the typical line of attack on President Obama and his administration’s foreign policy. Bolton suggested that Obama is ignoring the dangers posed by the Muslim Brotherhood should they be included in a future Egyptian government. Bolton has essentially ignored the reality that the Muslim Brotherhood will most likely be represented in the future government. While John Bolton’s chances of securing the nomination are nil he implored the conservative audience to “work to return national security to the center of our political debate over the next two years, and thereby help to make Barack Obama a one-term president.”

With the exception of Ron Paul’s advocacy for an isolationist foreign policy the GOP largely avoided any mention of Egypt or what their individual visions of America’s foreign policy would be under their watches. According to Rep. Paul “We need to do a lot less, a lot sooner, not only in Egypt but around the world…they’re upset with us for propping up that puppet dictator for 30 years.” The presumed front-runners at CPAC missed an important opportunity. By ignoring the realities unfolding in the Arab world they are portraying a GOP that largely agrees with how Obama has handled his first foreign policy crises. They are essentially ceding the ground to the president and allowing him to drive the overall narrative.

The Executive Branch is often seen as the authority on foreign policy and with that perception the president has freedom of movement. Because well respected Republican Senators have more or less approved of his handling of the revolution in Egypt, criticisms by potential presidential candidates are less significant.

While the speakers by and large were not reserved with their criticism of the president their lines of attacks were largely an echo of the arguments from the 2008 presidential election and those made daily by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and their conservative cohorts. Speaking Friday at CPAC former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) asserted, “When the United States of America protects its national security interests here and around the world, we need to do it with strength.” The former governor continued “We need to get tough with our enemies, not our friends…And one more thing: Mr. President stop apologizing for our country. Terrorists and tyrants have much to apologize for. America does not.”

Pawlenty seems to have forgotten that Dick Cheney has even shown a modicum of respect for President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan and his continuation of many of the Bush administrations terrorism policies. Rather than express an acknowledgment of this fact, Pawlenty added “Bullies respect strength. They don’t respect weakness.” Pawlenty is glossing over the fact that President Obama has killed or captured a significant number Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. By some estimates more than President Bush. Obama has also increased our troop presence in Afghanistan by the thousands.

When Mitt Romney addressed the crowd he rehashed a few similar arguments and faulted the president for not supporting the protesters in Iran but left out any mention of the protestors in Egypt. “The President who touted his personal experience as giving him special insight into foreign affairs was caught unprepared when Iranian citizens rose up against oppression. His proposed policy of engagement with Iran and North Korea won him the Nobel Peace Prize. How’s that worked out?”

Gov. Romney it appears has forgotten that North Korea perplexed the former Bush administration and it was left unresolved when President Obama took over. While Obama certainly stumbled initially as protests enveloped the streets of Tehran, the administration has unilaterally enacted some of the toughest economic sanctions that Iran has ever experienced. The administration has also conducted covert cyber warfare operations in conjunction with the Israelis which have disrupted the Iranian nuclear program at Natanz.

Republicans who are generally supportive of the administrations handling of Egypt are not running for president in 2012. This matters because as the crises fades into our collective memory voters will recall mostly supportive Republicans applauding Obama’s handling of Egypt. Sarah Palin, in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), criticized the president on his handling of Egypt. In the interview Gov. Palin said, “It’s a difficult situation, this is that 3am White House phone call…it seems that that call went right to um the answering machine. And nobody yet has, no body yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-NC) rebuked the former governor by suggesting, “Quite frankly, President Obama has handled it well, Mubarak has said he’s going to go. He’s announced he is not going to seek re-election. The question for the president, Obama, and the country and the world is what do we do between now and September? The sooner we can get a transition government, the quicker we can build opposition capacity, to have a full and fair, free transparent election, in September the better. But I really have no fault with President Obama the way he’s handled this crisis.”

In response to a question by John King about Gov. Palin’s criticisms of President Obama’s handling of the revolution in Egypt, Sen. Graham went further, “Well, you know, she’s a friend and we just disagree on this one. I thought the Iranian crisis last year, maybe a little over a year from now when President Obama really was slow to react and not get behind the demonstrators was a missed opportunity. And I think what he has done in Egypt has been sort of lessons learned from Iran. So I disagreed with governor Palin over this particular issue.”

Senator McCain offered his praise to the president, “I have to say the president I think is handling this situation well under the most difficult kind of circumstances. We are paying a price for historic neglect of human rights, which we have traditionally stood for throughout our history.” Senator McCain’s answer also reflects a nuanced understanding of the region that few potential Republican candidates for president have shown. McCain is subtly implying that foreign policy decisions are made when situations are constantly evolving. Whereas John Bolton visualizes a world where everything is in black and white and there are few gray areas.

Gov. Palin and now Newt Gingrich are also finding that Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) is supporting the administration’s handling of the Egyptian crises. He described President Obama’s response as “pretty well” Sen. Chambliss suggested the statements made by Gingrich and Palin describing an Egyptian government that included the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous as not fully accounting for the realities on the ground in Egypt.

Sen. Chambliss commented “I don’t know if we could say if the [Muslim Brotherhood] as a whole is made up of radical Islamists. But that part of the world has a lot of extremists in it. And some of those extremists are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Chambliss continued, “It is a concern, but it looks like they’re going to have to be part of the mix.” These criticisms by Senator Chambliss carry some weight because he has been named the Ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The fact that McCain and Graham are weighing in fairly positively on the administration’s response to the Egyptian revolt can be attributed to their not seeking the presidency nor reelection in 2012.

The presumed Republican candidates for president are in a difficult spot. Publicly they must refrain from making statements that can be used against them on the campaign trail by their opponents. Privately they might agree with the president but in the public square they must tell a different story. Their lack of attention paid to Egypt during their CPAC speeches is unfortunate. Each potential presidential candidate who spoke (Palin and Mike Huckabee were not in attendance) could have offered a nuanced policy prescription to the events unfolding in Egypt. Instead, only Bolton and Paul addressed Egypt with any substantive details.

This also points to a weakness in all the presumed candidates. Without offering any arguments that differ significantly from those made in 2008 they essentially are not challenging President Obama. Instead, whoever the nominee is will only be able to critique the president on his handling of domestic issues thereby allowing him to win the foreign policy debate.

President Obama was an effective candidate in 2008 because he was able to hammer the Republicans on both foreign and domestic issues thereby weakening their overall arguments. If the presidential race had only been about foreign policy Sen. McCain would have been the stronger candidate. When the debate turned to economic issues McCain essentially lost the presidency. Because policy makers like John McCain, Saxby Chambliss and Lindsey Graham and former practitioners like Henry Kissinger and James Baker have been supportive of President Obama over the past couple of weeks it makes potential presidential candidates look less presidential should they eventually offer any criticisms of the president over his handling of Egypt.

In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, former Secretary of State James Baker offered his analysis of the administration. “They were too quick to indicate that they might pull the rug out from under him. Since then, they’ve been very moderate in their approach.”

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