The uprising in Egypt that ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak has exposed the foreign policy divisions among conservatives more than any other event since President Barack Obama took office. The varying conservative reactions to the uprising have ranged from giddy cheerleading to resigned handwringing to outright paranoia. But these reactions have broader implications: They show that conservatives have become increasingly divided on issues of national security and foreign policy. Various factions of the conservative coalition are jockeying for influence and standing ahead of the 2012 elections without a strong leader to set the conservative agenda.
Conservatives are cracking up into four distinct camps:
- Rump neoconservatives, who advocate democratic change in Egypt regardless of potential adverse side effects
- A motley coalition of anti-Muslim paranoids and hard-bitten realists who fear a fundamentalist takeover
- Middle-grounders who saw the Mubarak regime’s writing on the wall but also fear a fundamentalist takeover and advocate for a military takeover
- And politicians, who are themselves divided into two camps—those who duck the issue and support President Barack Obama’s approach and those who are using the uprising to snipe at the incumbent administration
The rump neoconservative faction takes the Egyptian revolt as delayed vindication of former President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. They are led by former Bush administration National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams and ideologue William Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative think tank. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it, it was only “George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and band of neocons” who believed democracy was possible in the Middle East before the recent uprising on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
They have also criticized the Obama administration for failing to take a strong rhetorical stand in favor of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Ironically enough, though, there has been more political change in Egypt on President Obama’s watch than the heady days of President Bush’s Freedom Agenda.
The neocons appear sincere in their desire for a democratic Egypt. Jamie Fly, the executive director of Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative, wrote that the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power after Mubarak often cited by other conservatives “are likely exaggerated” and “it is in the interest of the United States that the Egyptian people finally be free.”
Kristol himself went on the attack against Glenn Beck’s conspiracy-mongering on the Egypt uprising in his pet magazine, The Weekly Standard, writing Beck “brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society.” Beck, Kristol wrote, is “marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did in the early 1960s.”
Beck’s fellow travelers have also taken to the op-ed ramparts, however. They warn that Mubarak is the only bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood and its international conspiracy against the United States. Another underlying concern of these writers is that the United States will be perceived as “abandoning” Mubarak.
Tony Blankley, writing in The Washington Times, has written two columns in support of Mubarak, concluding bluntly in one, “Support Mr. Mubarak.” Similarly, Edward Luttwak posited in the Wall Street Journal that Mubarak’s removal would lead to either anarchy or Islamists coming to power. Frank Gaffney, an erstwhile neocon also writing in The Washington Times, provides fuel to Beck’s paranoid fire by arguing that President Obama is somehow helping the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt. He views the Brotherhood as an immense global conspiracy.
The conservative middle-grounders lie between the idealists and the paranoids. They saw the writing on the wall that the Egyptian people would no longer tolerate Mubarak’s rule. But they remained fearful and advocated a military takeover. And they seek to split the difference between the other two conservative camps.
Krauthammer, for all his later posturing about the lonely neocon belief in Middle East democracy, was a middle-grounder as the uprising unfolded. He characterized Egyptian democracy as a “long shot” and called on the military to provide stability. Max Boot captured the predicament of the middle-grounder in the closing lines of his Wall Street Journal oped: “Yet what choice have we? Mr. Mubarak’s day is done. It’s only a question of time before he slinks out of office. The best the U.S. and our allies can do at this point is try to make the transition as fast and painless as possible.”
Most potential presidential candidates who have spoken out on the Egypt uprising have used it mainly as a club to attack the Obama administration. Sarah Palin, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich have all criticized President Obama’s response to the uprising without clearly delineating their own positions on Egypt.
This trio has leaned toward the paranoid and realist view. Palin and Pawlenty demand a strong rhetorical stand against the Muslim Brotherhood, and Gingrich accuses the administration of “publicly abandon[ing]” Mubarak.
Other contenders such as Mitt Romney, however, have taken the same line as the congressional conservative leaders and largely supported the Obama administration’s approach. These conservatives appear content to avoid the risks inherent in taking a stand on an unpredictable foreign policy issue.
Ultimately, some conservatives will try to straddle the divides, as Krauthammer did briefly. Others, such as William Kristol, will feel the need to cut themselves off from the wilder elements of their coalition. But they will not be able to reconcile the competing visions of foreign policy among conservatives. And as November 2012 draws ever nearer, the cracks between conservatives on foreign policy issues will grow wider.
Peter Juul is a Research Associate at American Progress, where he specializes in the Middle East, military affairs, and U.S. national security policy.