At CPAC, Egypt appears to be an afterthought
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:59 PM
On a day of history in the Middle East, there was one topic virtually absent from the speeches of prospective 2012 Republican presidential candidates at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee's convention: Egypt.
The would-be contenders - and others who addressed the gathering - struck a series of common conservative themes, such as reducing the size of government as well as projecting strength and muscle abroad. All attacked President Obama for his domestic and foreign policies.
But for the most part, they had little to say about the nation's policy toward Egypt, whether to praise the demonstrators whose protests forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down, or to offer the principles that should guide U.S. policy as the American and Israeli ally takes the next steps toward democracy.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney didn't mention Egypt at all in his speech. Nor did Sen. John Thune (S.D.), although his text included a line that said, "Let's stand with those around the world who are risking their lives for freedom." Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty made a glancing reference, criticizing Obama as appeasing U.S. adversaries, including "Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood."
It was left to Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) to step into the vacuum. The libertarian conservative, who drew an enthusiastic audience of supporters, offered a contrarian view. In a party that has championed the spread of freedom as part of its recent foreign policy and whose leaders helped keep Mubarak in power for decades in the name of stability in the Middle East, Paul stood out as a dissenter.
Saying he disagrees with the idea that the United States has "a moral responsibility to spread our goodness around the world," Paul added to cheers from the crowd, "We need to do a lot less a lot sooner, not only in Egypt but around the world."
The prospective White House candidates came to the conference, sponsored by the American Conservative Union, to try to impress a part of the conservative movement, not necessarily to comment on the news of the day. But given the difficulty of calibrating U.S. policy in the middle of fast-moving events, they choose a safer course - while still holding up Obama for criticism.
Romney devoted much of his speech to economic issues. He called the president's economic program "the most expensive failed social experiment in modern history." On foreign policy, he said, "The cause of liberty cannot endure much more of Obama's 'They get, we give' diplomacy."
Asked why Romney had chosen not to address Egypt, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom replied via e-mail, "The governor wanted to concentrate his remarks on jobs and the economy."
Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant rejected that his boss was "shying away from Egypt," noting that he discussed the issue with conservative bloggers Friday and would surely be asked about it in weekend talk-show appearances.
Another topic noticeably absent from Romney's speech was health care. Many conservatives have criticized Romney for signing a health-care overhaul law in Massachusetts that is similar to the one Obama pushed as president and have called on the former governor to explain his actions more fully.
Pawlenty won his biggest applause when he called for a more muscular foreign policy. "Bullies respect strength, they don't respect weakness," he said. "So when the United States of America projects its national security interests here and around the world, we need to do it with strength." He called on Obama to "get tough on our enemies, not our friends," adding, "Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country." That, too, produced a standing ovation.