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updated 2/8/2011 6:21:32 PM ET 2011-02-08T23:21:32

A top House Republican said Tuesday the primary goal of U.S. policy in Egypt should be to "stop the spread of radical Islam," an objective that has been little mentioned by Obama administration officials in recent weeks.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also said at a news conference he hopes the street protests taking place in Cairo and elsewhere will lead to a democratic society that "stands for human rights, progress and equal opportunity."

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In his remarks, Cantor did not criticize President Barack Obama over his handling of the two-week crisis.

GOP leaders have privately urged members of the rank and file not to second-guess Obama's approach to the crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have staged demonstrations demanding that President Hosni Mubarak surrender power.

Asked about criticism leveled recently by another Republican lawmaker, Cantor said, it would not be "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."

Yet with his remarks, which aides said were planned in advance, Cantor appeared to be articulating a different policy objective than the one Obama has spoken of most frequently.

"I think the primary goal should be to stop the spread of radical Islam. That is where our focus should be," he said.

Since the protests first arose, Obama has called for a transition to a government — regardless of its leader — that grants greater freedoms than Mubarak allows in a nation of 80 million.

"The future of Egypt will be determined by its people. It's also clear that there needs to be a transition process that begins now. That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people and that leads to free and fair elections," the president said late last week.

Mubarak, who has been in power nearly 30 years, has been a strong ally of the United States in the Middle East as well as in its attempt to rein in international terrorists. He also has abided by the peace treaty with Israel signed by his predecessor.

At the same time, in recent years U.S. presidents have urged Mubarak to allow greater freedoms for Egyptians, including free elections.

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Cantor is Jewish and a strong supporter of Israel, whose leaders have been watching events unfold in Egypt with apprehension.

Asked whether Cantor's remarks stemmed at least in part from his position on Israel, Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said the majority leader "has consistently made clear that the expansion of radical Islam is a global danger and is bad for America and our allies."

Other traditional congressional supporters of Israel have also remained on the sidelines while Obama grapples with the protests in Egypt.

Simultaneously, one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has been largely silent on the fast-moving developments. AIPAC holds considerable sway with lawmakers and many take their lead from the group.

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Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Conservatives split over foreign policy

  1. Closed captioning of: Conservatives split over foreign policy

    >> one in years, richard wolffe , msnbc political analyst and ben smith , national political reporter for "politico." i want you to look at clips, beginning rich, beck, palin. first of all newt gingrich , says he doesn't support -- the united states shouldn't support muslim brotherhood or talking with them, in fact chblgt here is what he told cnn.

    >> secretary clinton said we want to reach out to the muslim brotherhood . this is absolutely total misreading of history. the muslim brotherhood is a mortal enemy of our civilization. they say so openly. their slogan says so openly. their way is jihad. their method is death. for us to encourage in any way the inclusion of muslim brotherhood is fundamentally wrong.

    >> if you look at newt gingrich you see a mortal enemy to civilization. here is glenn beck on the radio. let's listen to his thoughts.

    >> i want the left to know, i want my flag in this soil. groups from the hard core socialist and communist left and extreme islam will work together because they are both a common enemy of israel and the jew. islam wants caliphate. communists want a communist new world order . they will work together and they will destabilize because they both want chaos."

    >> he's the same person out there saying the two president bushes and the way they conducted bombing campaigns and two iraq wars were really working with this new muslim world order. bill crystal, not conservatives supporting mubarak . here is what he said on " morning joe " today.

    >> a genuine democratic protest.

    >>> take a look. sarah palin a full look, she took a swipe at president obama 's handling of egypt . let's listen to her. min.

    >> it's a difficult situation. thats 3:00 a.m . white house phone call , same for many of us trying to get that information from our leader in the white house . it seems that call went right to the answering machine. nobody yet has -- nobody yet has explained to the american public what they know, surely they know more than the rest of us know, who it is who will be taking the place of mubarak .

    >> she talks like a cuckoo clock . i think when she gets that patented, that's what she said sell, cuckoo clocks with her coming out every hour or half hour. her take on how the president handled the crisis in egypt . let's listen to senator graham.

    >> quite frankly president obama has handled it well. mubarak is going to go. he's announced he's not going to seek re-election. i disagree with governor palin over this particular issue.

    >> let me go to richard wolffe . richard, if there ever was a time for dealing with tricky business it's dealing with this transition of power in egypt . it's not easy. we've had an alliance. we also know he's a dictator. we know or learning he may be a clepto, having taken a lot of money out of that country. at the same time we need to make a transition to something not as bad or better. it's not easy. it's interesting to watch the chasm on the right. they are at least consistent, neo- conservative , pushing the argument we have to have democracy in the middle east ultimately even with risks.

    >> there's a third which senator graham represents here, which is conservative opinion, more realistic in saying let's deal with the world as it is out there. less that tension that played out between the conservatives and neo-cons through the bush years. what's remarkable is seeing the conspiracy side of this take ahold. newt gingrich , who is a self-styled historian or student of history making some of the same kind of mistakes. you cannot see this region the rest of the world purely in terms of post 9/11 american political framework. you cannot project out everything from the bush era. if you are, at least going to study the bush era properly. the experiment of democracy, untraveled democracy inside the middle east is most clearly demonstrated by the senior authority with hamas taking power in the gaza strip . how does that fit into the glenn beck conspiracy of people who are anti-israel and the communists working together. this was helped facilitated by the bush administration . if you don't have an orderly transition, you have a disorder for allies. islamists and communists working together it's as if they don't know what mubarak or saddam hussein ever stood for.

    >> of course baathists secular, closest to the left. i'm not sure but let's talk about this as sort of a competency test. glenn beck , would he pass one. if somebody were to come and run for office and say is there a conspiracy -- you can catch him by the way he behaves. here is somebody who says the two wars in iraq were directed in the bombing campaign so as to avoid targeting what he calls ancient babylon which he says to be the seat of world power under this new caliphate. what would he think if they were coordinate? is this what's going on with bill crystal, lindsey graham and people are finally saying we have to upchuck these people on the right, they are just causing us trouble.

    >> that's exactly what it is. this was an opportunity for crystal above all to say publicly what a lot of that conservative elite has quietly said to each other, which is we've got to distance ourselves. he doesn't stand for us. he says crazy things. when you hear him say that, editor of national review , jumped on and agreed with him, it was an opportunity for them to distance themselves from somebody who had become an embarrassment.

    >> i'm not a conservative , when i was a kid i liked libertarian argument like hillary did, a lot of us did, saw some conflicts in that thought but one thing in the '50s and '60s, bill buckly said you can't be a conservative and anti-semite, for example, you cannot be a crazy person. richard wolffe on this point, seems to me there is some housecleaning going on here.

    >> there is a positioning that's going on clearly in front of the 2012 primaries here. but i think the real thompsthe real competition is not going to be won by somebody saying you're outside the mainstream or inside the mainstream. looking for more change, anti-establishment, above all gets prizes and points for criticizing obama no matter how outlandish that is. yes, bushes are part of this now because they are seen as a tainted legacy because they promoted government, too much foreign intervention. i don't know the sort of insanity competence electability arguments are going to hold the line .

    >> richard, would the average conservative say they thought w was targeting our airplanes to avoid hitting a muslim new world order site because he didn't want to offend the purposes of this movement? what could it possibly mean?

    >> i'm not saying it makes any sense at all but there's been a conservative effort to denigrate bush presidency because of his expansion of government. i don't know what the downside is for beck or anyone else to go after any of the bushes.

    >> let's go back to '92. ben, republicans back in '92, a lot of people believe our colleague pat buchanan 's speech, not him personally, the speech he gave at the convention in houston hurt their chances in '92 about bringing back the streets block by block. it hit people pretty tough, outrageous, ethnic, trouble making. my question, are the republicans afraid they are doing to have to clean up their act or cannot be seen as an credible alternative to obama.

    >> certainly a desire to be seen as a responsible alternative and this is an opportunity for a lot of republicans that probably do agree with him and maybe are being responsible. it's an opportunity to say i agree with the president on this. this is not a hot domestic political issue, although a riveting story and take responsible criticism elsewhere, to position themselves as a responsible critics. that's why you saw lindsey graham raising eyebrows to sarah palin after not really explaining what she was objecting to.

    >> i'm curious, do you think beck will get to speak at the republican convention next time?

    >> i don't think he will. i think if he wants to hold a convention twice the size across the street he can, too. there's certainly an appetite for what he's selling.

    >> your opinion, will he be a crowd pleaser at the convention?

    >> depends who the nominee is. you can't keep the guy out of the big tent . he causes so many problems if he's excluded. who knows if we'll get a third party challenge out of this as well. too many ponderables in that one.

    >> your thought is my mud ball thrown at president obama , zanny, incompetent or not is applauded by the right?

    >> i think there was a narrative there that is designed to say he's un-american, doesn't share america's values and therefore pretty much anything goes that fits into that. it doesn't matter whether it has reality in basis or fact.

    >> part of that craziness saying he's got a secret plan over there, that somehow the president is working with the people in the streets with a secret plan to bring in our enemies to hurt us more. thank you richard wolffe . thank you ben smith . great having you on the

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