WASHINGTON — A parade of prospective Republican presidential candidates has been visiting the Middle East in recent months, making pilgrimages that are the first steps in a methodical process of building credibility in foreign policy.
But as the crisis in Egypt has intensified this week, elevating foreign affairs above domestic political skirmishes, the potential Republican candidates and the party’s leaders in Congress have, with only a few exceptions, had little to say.
As a result, President Obama has had the moment practically all to himself — for better or worse — as he gingerly proceeds without a sustained counterargument on a matter that could reshape United States foreign policy for years.
The lack of debate underscores the relative absence of muscular Republican voices on foreign affairs in general, a sharp contrast to the way things were four years ago, when President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy was a flashpoint between the two parties at this point in the election cycle.
To some degree, the silence from Republicans reflects a lack of substantive differences, especially on Egypt. House Speaker John A. Boehner set the tone on Sunday, saying, “Our administration so far has handled this tense situation pretty well.” And in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said Tuesday, “America ought to speak with one voice, and we have one president.”
Party elders have largely agreed. On Wednesday, James A. Baker, the former secretary of state, said of the Obama administration, “They’ve been handling this Egyptian crisis quite well, frankly.”
The delicate nature of the situation in Egypt, where events have moved fast and turned violent in the past week, helps explain the measured Republican response.
But the crisis has illustrated a broader pattern in which Republicans have been strikingly unwilling or unable to draw sharp contrasts with the administration on foreign policy — including Iraq and Afghanistan — and have instead taken aim mainly at Mr. Obama’s domestic agenda.
While it is hardly rare for opposition candidates to have limited foreign policy experience — take, for example, Senator Barack Obama as he started his candidacy four years ago — the president’s Republican rivals so far do not even have a high-profile issue, as Mr. Obama did with Iraq, on which they can offer national security policies and values that contrast with those of the White House.
The escalating crisis in Egypt has attracted fresh attention to foreign policy at the very time that prospective Republican contenders are trying to establish their credentials as prospective commanders in chief. Gone are the days when the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire were the only obligatory stops on the campaign trail. Particularly for candidates who want to appeal to evangelical voters, Israel, Jordan and other points across the Middle East are now important stops as well.
Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, completed his 15th visit to Israel this week. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is set to leave on Saturday for a trip to Israel that is scheduled to include a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, made a similar visit last month, and Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, has led a trade delegation to Israel.
While most of these potential Republican contenders have offered mild criticism of how the United States has handled the Egypt crisis, particularly Mr. Obama’s delay in distancing himself from President Hosni Mubarak, the tenor of the remarks has been muted in comparison with the Republican reaction to the administration’s health care law or economic policy.
In a policy sense, Republicans, like Democrats, are walking a fine line between support of a quick transition to a new government in Egypt and the concern, felt especially keenly in Israel, that the removal of Mr. Mubarak could lead to instability and the possible rise of an Islamist government.
Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, who seldom goes more than a few days without criticizing the administration, has been silent about the turmoil in Egypt.
Nor have the sounds of disagreement been heard on Capitol Hill, where Republican advisers urge party members to keep dissent to a minimum and continue to focus on domestic issues like health care, government spending and jobs.
Instead, most of the alternative foreign policy views to those of the administration have come by way of the Fox News Channel, where several potential Republican contenders also serve as paid analysts. (Mr. Huckabee assumed the role of a roving pundit for Fox, filing on-the-scene dispatches from Israel, saying the credibility of the United States was quickly eroding.)
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who is considering a presidential bid, has been among the most critical voices.
“I don’t think they have a clue,” Mr. Gingrich said of the White House’s stance toward the Mubarak government in an interview on Fox News this week with Greta Van Susteren. “It’s very frightening to watch this administration.”
Bob Kasten, a former Republican senator from Wisconsin who has traveled extensively in Egypt and was scheduled to be there this week in his role as a trustee at American University in Cairo, said that strong Republican voices had been lacking in the Egypt discussion.
An effort to show unity, he said, may have sent the impression that Republicans think the president has handled the situation flawlessly.
“The major issues of the day among most Americans are the economic issues, and the Republican Congress wants to keep the focus on those issues, but foreign policy is so important,” said Mr. Kasten, who served on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The administration and the president are trying to be too cute and trying to have it all ways,” he said. “They are going to end up with all sides being disappointed with them.” Source @NYTimes