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[Dick Polman] GOP cutting Obama slack over Egypt

Hey, check out some of the nice things that people have said lately about Barack Obama:

“The president, I think, is handling this (Egypt) situation well, under the most difficult kind of circumstances.”

“I really have no fault with the president, Obama, the way he’s handled this process.”

“I think the administration, our administration, has handled this tense situation pretty well.”

“We ought to speak as one voice during this crisis. We have one president.”

So say four top-tier Republicans ― Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. It’s particularly jarring to hear McConnell say that we’re united behind one president, given that his stated top priority is to topple Obama.

Even William Kristol, arguably the king of conservative punditry, is advising his brethren to cut Obama some slack: “Reasonable people will differ in their analyses of rapidly changing circumstances half a world away ― a fact that should make us somewhat tolerant of the Obama administration’s own stumbles.”

Normally, Republicans would relish the opportunity to skewer a Democratic president who’s immersed in a foreign crisis, if only to stoke the old stereotype about how Democrats are soft and naive on the world stage. Yet with the exception of a few predictable complainers (Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich), most Republicans have been mute or passively supportive.

What’s up with this? How come so many avowed Obama foes seem to be channeling Arthur Vandenberg, the influential Republican senator who insisted in the late 1940s that “politics stops at the water’s edge”?

The cynical answer: Obama’s domestic critics are perfectly content to exude a bipartisan spirit today (swing voters like bipartisanship), knowing full well that if events go sour in Egypt, they can always assail Obama tomorrow.

Substantive answer, Part One: The caring and feeding of Hosni Mubarak, an ally who played nice with Israel and provided regional stability, had been American policy since 1981. Every president from Reagan to Obama had given lip service to Egyptian democratic aspirations while doing business with Mubarak. George W. Bush talked a lot about fostering democracy in Egypt, but just three years ago he lauded Mubarak as a potential leader of “the freedom-of-justice movement.” All told, America has sent roughly $60 billion to Egypt over the last 30 years; most of it goes to Mubarak’s military, not to democracy promotion.

In other words, there’s no way the GOP can whack Obama for 31 years of bipartisan complicity, or credibly claim to be the party most in sync with grassroots Egyptians.

Substantive answer, Part Two: The conservative camp has been split internally since the Egypt story went global. Many didn’t even want to be in sync with the grass roots; they were fixated on bolstering Mubarak in his time of need. They said we owed the guy, big time. Mubarak had sustained a cold peace with Israel, he had aided our counterterrorism programs, and he had done his part to keep the oil flowing.

Which is why potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee hailed Mubarak as “a 30-year ally and a long-standing friend to peace and stability.” Dick Cheney called Mubarak “a good friend.”

And if we are to believe Glenn Beck, the people chanting in the streets carry the seeds of America’s destruction: “The former Soviet Union, everybody, radical Islam ... this is the story of everyone who has ever plotted or wanted to fundamentally change or destroy the Western way of life.” Naturally, he also tossed in American liberals.

But the neoconservatives ― who have long promoted democracy in the Middle East ― were in solidarity with the street. In a new opinion piece, Kristol rebuked those on the right who “are so fearful of a popular awakening that they side with the dictator against the democrats.” Then Kristol dumped on Beck: “Hysteria is not a sign of health. ... He is marginalizing himself.” And, in retaliation, Beck dumped on Kristol: “I don’t even know if you understand what conservatives are anymore, Billy.”

(Liberals might normally relish a Beck-Kristol fracas, but the truth is, they were just as torn about Egypt. Some on the left wanted Obama to push harder for Egyptian democracy, while others feared that the revolutionary spirit would go awry and that Egypt would wind up with a theocracy.)

The point is, Middle East politics is far too complicated, and far too removed from our control, to afford us the luxury of certitude. Most Republicans have kept their powder dry ― staying silent about Obama’s cautious call for “an orderly and genuine transition” ― largely because the future of Egypt seems unknowable. There’s no percentage in taking a firm stance that might wind up looking bad down the road. Better to cede the complexities, and the domestic political risk, to Obama.

Politicians frequently get more candid once they leave office. Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman writing about foreign policy in 2009, said all presidents are constantly required to balance the nation’s idealism (the promotion of democracy abroad) with its realism (breaking bread with useful bad guys). Obama’s brief was no different. Edwards wrote, “The world is never easy. One wishes for more democracy, more freedom, more protection from abuse in all places where these rights are in short supply. But there are other considerations, and they necessarily impinge on the decision-making process.”

It’s laudable that Republican leaders have hung back while Obama pursues the best mix at the crux of historic change. And it would appear that realism requires us to get in tune with grassroots Egyptian idealism. Perhaps we can artfully nudge a new Egypt toward a secular, inclusive democracy that could stabilize the region and act as a force for good. That strikes me as a worthy bipartisan pursuit. It would do us good as a nation to at least postpone the inevitable day when domestic politics cascades once more beyond the water’s edge.

By Dick Polman

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ― Ed.

(The Philadelphia Inquirer)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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