Updated at 8:23 a.m. on February 8.
The turmoil in Egypt besetting President Obama also presents a dilemma to the field of potential GOP presidential candidates: Do they back the fledgling revolution and potentially anti-American factions within it, or do they support President Hosni Mubarak and be seen as supporting a dictator?
Republicans' reactions to the crisis have run the gamut, from calling for Mubarak’s resignation to praising him as a longtime ally. They can’t agree if President Obama should be criticized for his response—usually a topic that unifies the GOP—and most of them tried to support the would-be revolutionaries while simultaneously expressing grave concern that the protesters might harbor anti-American sentiment.
The rapidly changing situation has even prompted some strategists to suggest that staying silent, not speaking out, is the smartest decision.
“Probably for most Republican candidates, the wise thing to be doing is to be a little cautious before you see how it all flushes out,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist. “It’s a real crapshoot politically.”
Responses among the candidates have varied in the last week. In an interview that aired Monday on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s 700 Club, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin warned about the dangers of Mubarak’s successors possibly being anti-American Islamic sympathizers. But she dismissed any notion that Mubarak should stay on as the country’s leader. “Mubarak, he’s gone, one way or the other,” she said.
Echoing Palin, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, speaking a week earlier in Iowa, said the longtime leader’s time had “come to an end,” while he expressed concern over who would replace him.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said he was disappointed the administration didn’t do more to acknowledge Mubarak’s contributions to making peace with Israel. “The United States' deafening silence toward not even acknowledging any role that he [Mubarak] may have played in a peaceful border, between Egypt and Israel, is what's of great concern,” he said.
Offering the most blistering critique of Obama, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., suggested Obama hadn’t taken the Middle East seriously. “The president went to Cairo and gave his famous speech in which he explained that we should all be friends together because we're all the same people doing the same things and there are no differences between us,” he said. "Well, I think there are a lot of differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of us."
Perceived front-runner Mitt Romney, by contrast, largely praised Obama last week and said Mubarak’s “long history of friendship” with America means the president shouldn’t call for his resignation.
The responses are shaped by a multitude of factors, primary among them how it will affect Israel. That was particularly evident in the response from Huckabee, who last week was in the country meeting with leaders there. Supporting Israel is a major part of any Republican’s platform, said Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist who worked with Huckabee in 2008 but has yet to sign up with a candidate this cycle.
“To a certain extent, candidates are sort of watching, saying, ‘I can’t go against the American Jewish community, I can’t say anything not 100 percent supportive of Israel,’” Rollins said.
A spokeswoman for the pro-Israel group American Israel Public Affairs Committee said the organization is concerned that any group taking power in Egypt must support the country’s peace treaty with Israel, and not doing so should result in America withdrawing billions of dollars in aid supplied to the country.
Republican candidates don’t want to be seen as squashing a democratic movement in the Middle East, one of the tenets of the party’s foreign policy platform during President George W. Bush’s tenure. But they’re also careful to express concern that the anti-Mubarak forces interests might not align with U.S. interests.
“Clearly don’t want to be a terrorist sympathizer,” said Mueller. “If you’re on record aiding and abetting such a thing, it’s not good.”
Romney, like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., avoided stinging criticism, but GOP consultants say prospective candidates have an opening to attack the president’s response if, like Gingrich, they want to.
The administration has done a poor job finding a consistent message about Egypt, or even a spokesman to deliver it, said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP consultant.
“I think some of these guys sense a political opportunity to contrast their forthright, direct leadership... with the position-of-the-day Obama,” he said. “That’s something a lot of these guys see as a political opportunity.”
Obama has struggled to be seen as a strong leader internationally, Rollins said, and the last week hasn’t “enhanced those credentials.” But like Mueller, he suggested the fluid situation in the Middle East might make staying quiet smarter than speaking up—advice he said the White House would also be wise to follow.
“I think to a certain extent, a quiet voice would probably be the smartest thing at this point,” Rollins said.