Why Republicans are Holding their Tongues on Mideast Unrest
Published in Gulf News, 23 February 2011
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
American politicians can usually be counted on when one feels the need for comic relief in the form of cringe-inducing remarks on some aspect of foreign affairs. Combine this with a political climate so deeply polarised that Republicans have seriously suggested that Michelle Obama's campaign to promote healthy eating is somehow an assault on freedom and the Middle East's winter of revolution ought to have made for some pretty head-spinning rhetoric.
Oddly, though, it has not. To the extent that US President Barack Obama has been criticised at home it is mostly from supporters within his own party who feel he has not done enough to support protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain.
Republican leaders, in contrast, have offered mostly quiet support for Obama's handling of events in the Middle East, and that only when pressed. Even Sarah Palin has maintained an uncharacteristic silence.
To be sure, the professional demagogues of talk radio have been just as relentless in their Middle East-themed criticisms of Obama as they are about everything else, but among people who actually hold, or aspire to hold, public office the attitude of ‘let's all just stand back and let the president do his job' has been quite remarkable.
When Republicans met recently for the annual meeting of conservative activists known as CPAC (pronounced ‘see-pack') a long line of potential GOP presidential candidates took to the stage for what were billed as important policy speeches delivered before a crucial party audience. Most said not a word about the events then unfolding in Cairo.
The only one who did, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, was universally judged to have put his foot in his mouth by coming out strongly in support of Mubarak and criticising Obama's failure to back him to the hilt (for the record, Santorum is, at best, an asterisk on anyone's list of potential GOP contenders).
The contrast is especially stark when compared to the region's last major flare-up: Iran's crackdown on dissent following its disputed 2009 presidential election. The turbulent aftermath of the Iranian vote saw Obama criticised from both ends of the political spectrum, but especially by right-wingers, many of whom seemed to believe that strong US support was all the protesters needed to topple the Iranian regime.
Those who pointed out that a ‘made-in-America' label is rarely an asset in Iranian politics were dismissed as weak-kneed appeasers.
The difference, of course, is that Iran is not America's friend. Washington's leaders may differ over Iran's nuclear programme and what to do about it, but they all share a deep distaste for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Turbulent countries that are also longstanding friends of the US pose a far more thorny political problem.
So it was that on last Sunday's talk shows Republican leaders lined up to criticise Obama's lack of action on Iran, where the US has very little influence, while saying little or nothing about places like Jordan and Bahrain where, were Obama to pick up the phone, there would at least be someone at the other end willing to take his call.
Regardless of how events develop, the Republicans' silence will not continue. The 2012 GOP presidential candidates are scheduled to gather in California for the first of their many campaign debates on May 2. Unlike CPAC this event will be televised live. Whatever happens over the next ten weeks all of them (and there may be as many as a dozen) can be counted on to express an unfavourable opinion of Obama's Middle East policies when forced to do so in a nationally televised presidential debate.
Which brings us to what may be the real reason for Republican quietude: with so much uncertainty over where the region is headed the safest approach for any GOP leader right now is to hold one's tongue and let Obama handle things as he wishes.
Once the outcome of the region's fast-moving events is clearer you can rest assured the Republicans will find much to criticise. Obama should enjoy this breathing room while he has it.
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s. He teaches Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont and has taught Islamic History at Emerson College.