A fierce dispute raging among conservative commentators on the protests in Egypt is straining – but has yet to break – a bipartisan consensus among congressional leaders backing President Obama’s handling of events.
At issue is whether Egypt’s street revolution represents a threat to the US and the capitalist system – a theme of tea party icons Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin – or rather the spread of freedom to the Arab world, a theme of the conservative establishment that cheered President Bush’s war in Iraq.
House Republican leaders – the Obama administration’s strongest supporters on the war in Afghanistan – have cautioned their members, especially committee chairs, to avoid getting out ahead of the White House on Egypt.
“I don't think it is helpful for this president, who is having a tough enough time as it is, to have 535 members of Congress to opine on his conduct of foreign policy,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, at a press briefing on Tuesday. “All I can tell you is my priority is to make sure we stop the spread of radical Islam.”
His remarks, the first from top House Republican leaders who were away from Capitol Hill last week, came in response to a question, but were vetted in advance. They touched bases with both sides of the dispute in conservative ranks.
In a scathing editorial in this week’s Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol characterized Mr. Beck’s “rants” about a caliphate taking over the Middle East and alleged ties to the American left as “hysteria.”
“Nor is it a sign of health when other American conservatives are so fearful of a popular awakening that they side with the dictator against the Democrats,” he wrote.
Responding on "The Glenn Beck Program" on radio Tuesday, Beck charged that “people like Bill Kristol” no longer stand for conservative principles. “All they stand for is power,” he said. “They’ll do everything they can to keep Republican power entrenched.”
The rift in conservative ranks over the US response to Egypt also extends to issues such as how deeply to cut government spending or even whether to provoke a government shutdown.
“The newer voices in the Republican Party – the Becks and Palins – have been the most vocal in warning about this [Egyptian] revolution,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. Their attack is not just on Mr. Obama, he says, but on Mr. Bush’s foreign policy aims to promote freedom in the Arab world.
“Beck says that’s not going to happen," Mr. Zelizer says. "It’s just going to be fundamentalism.”
“Today, Republicans and conservatives are more divided on national security than they have been since 1930s,” says Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a member of the bipartisan Egypt Study Group.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee set a cautionary note in a hearing Wednesday on developments in Egypt and Lebanon. One of the first on Capitol Hill to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida charged that the stance the US has adopted toward Egypt, one of advocating gradual reforms and inclusive negotiations with opponents of the regime, had failed to address the demonstrators’ frustrations and prevent violence and had opened the door to “nonsecular actors,” such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt,” she added.
Others on the panel called for the US to suspend aid to Egypt – or at least use it to leverage more reform. The Obama administration is “maintaining a level of ambiguity so thick that ordinary Egyptians cannot discern whether we are on their side,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York, the top Democrat on the panel’s Middle East subcommittee. “We simply cannot afford to be seen in Egypt as being a bankroll to oppression.”
Witness Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the panel: "The uprisings we've seen in Tunisia and Egypt are exciting proof that the thirst for freedom is indeed universal." Mr. Abrams, who led Bush's global democracy strategy, told the committee that Congress should not suspend aid to Egypt immediately, but should “tell the Egyptian military very clearly: We’re not going to pay for suppression of democracy in Egypt.”
Aid could be cut off any day, he added, if Egypt's military cracks down on protesters, as China did in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, or makes clear that its goal is “to maintain Mubarakism without Mubarak.”
“Revolutions often start one way and wind up another,” says Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “We have to be aware of that.” That’s why the US has an interest in trying to prevent a revolution “made in the name of democracy from being hijacked by something much worse,” he wrote in an opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal, which Congressman Griffith cited as the source of his question.