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Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Ryan contradicts Romney on Mubarak

It might be time for Romney staffers to get on a conference call and coordinate the campaign's position on the Arab Spring. 

When moderator Martha Raddatz asked Paul Ryan during the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night if it was ever appropriate for the United States to apologize to other countries, the Republican congressman criticized the Obama administration for its delay in calling for then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down:

What we should not be apologizing for are standing up for our values. What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he's a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go.

The problem with that response is that it seems to contradict statements running mate Mitt Romney made ahead of a visit to Israel this summer. In an interview with Israel Hayom, the GOP presidential candidate declared that the Arab Spring "is not appropriately named" because of Islamist victories in the region and suggested that Mubarak could have been persuaded to reform, had President Obama not bungled the effort:

President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.

Romney surrogate John Bolton made Romney's point more explicitly during a Fox News interview with Greta Van Susteren shortly after the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya last month:

VAN SUSTEREN: But why is that the catalyst? I mean, like, the Arab spring that everyone started in Tunisia -- I mean, what -- was there anything that we could have done to sort of change the course of history?

BOLTON: Well, I think what we saw there was the risk to Mubarak. And instead of supporting a loyal ally who had upheld the Camp David accord, after vacillating three or four times in the course of a month, we threw Mubarak over the edge. And he had said for years, If I go, the Muslim Brotherhood's taking over.

Oh, no, said the Obama administration. Oh no, said many people in America. The Google guy is going to emerge in Egypt. He's going to be the new leader. People who tweet will be the new leaders. Do you see them anywhere today? They are off the stage.

Romney, who has also implied that the Obama administration is to blame for the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt, didn't always hold these views about the Arab Spring. In early February 2011, only days before the White House called for Mubarak's resignation, the former Massachusetts governor sounded a bit more like Paul Ryan on Thursday night. It was time, he explained, for Mubarak to "step out of the way or lead the transition," and for the United States to "make it very clear to the people of Egypt that we stand with the voices of democracy and freedom." While Mubarak needed to "move on," he added, Obama should not explicitly call for the Egyptian leader's resignation because of the friendship Mubarak had long shown to the United States (during the same period, Ryan stoked controversy by comparing public workers protests in Wisconsin to the demonstrations in Cairo).

More than a year-and-a-half later, the candidates appear to still be ironing out their positions.

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Did Paul Ryan apply his criteria for military intervention to Libya?

Thursday night's spirited vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan featured a lot of talk about the thresshold for U.S. military intervention in global conflicts. In one of the most telling exchanges, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the candidates what was worse: yet another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear-armed Iran?

Ryan replied that "we can't live" with a nuclear Iran that could spark a nuclear arms race in the region and be emboldened to sponsor terrorism and threaten Israel. Biden retorted that "war should always be the absolute last resort," adding that the administration's sanctions against Iran are working and that the president "doesn't bluff." The answers seemed to suggest that a Romney-Ryan administration would have fewer qualms about initiating a military conflict with Iran if Tehran appeared to be on the verge of weaponization.

The topic came up again when the conversation turned to the Syrian crisis, as Ryan declared that he would only send U.S. troops into the country if it was necessary to secure Syria's chemical weapons. It was at this point that Raddatz asked the Republican vice presidential candidate a broader question: "What's your criteria for intervention?" Ryan responded that U.S. national security interests had to be at stake:

RYAN: In Syria?

RADDATZ: Worldwide.

RYAN: What is in the national interests of the American people.

RADDATZ: How about humanitarian interests?

RYAN: What is in the national security of the American people. It's got to be in the strategic national interests of our country.

RADDATZ: No humanitarian?

RYAN: Each situation will -- will come up with its own set of circumstances, but putting American troops on the ground? That's got to be within the national security interests of the American people.

RADDATZ: I want to -- we're -- we're almost out of time here.

RYAN: That means like embargoes and sanctions and overflights, those are things that don't put American troops on the ground. But if you're talking about putting American troops on the ground, only in our national security interests.

The response raises the question: What was Paul Ryan's stance on the military intervention in Libya -- one of the most recent examples of these kinds of dilemmas? We know that Ryan has been critical of the Obama administration's response to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month (a topic that came up again at the start of Thursday night's debate). But we know much less about Ryan's position on the Libyan conflict in 2011. It turns out that in June of that year, the congressman elected not to join many of his Republican colleagues in the House in voting for a bill that would have blocked funding for certain elements of the Libya operation. He also voted against a largely symbolic resolution to authorize the mission.

"Today's vote indicates that the President has failed to adequately explain our mission in Libya either to Congress or to the American people," Ryan said in a statement. "While I do not support cutting off funding for the operations that are already underway, today's vote of no-confidence should send a strong message to the President: He owes the American people and Congress a clear strategy."

Indeed, it was strategy and procedure -- not the national security rationale behind the operation -- that constituted Ryan's critique of the Obama administration after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed in October. Ryan called Qaddafi a "butcher of his people" and expressed hope that Libyans would "build a successful, civil society, where individual rights are recognized." And then he lashed out at the White House, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:

"I don't have a problem with helping prevent genocide, but I do have a problem with they way in which they went about this operation," he said.

Asked what that problem was, he answered: "Didn't go to Congress, didn't ask for authority, the leading-from-behind strategy at NATO I think was very strange, and I don't think they had a mission well-defined. I think they jumped into this mission without having a real endgame in mind and it lasted a lot longer than anybody thought it would last."

On Thursday night, of course, Ryan made clear that he would apply his national-security-interest litmus test only when deciding whether to put U.S. troops on the ground, which never happened in Libya. But it's still worth pointing out that when President Obama decided to intervene in the country, Ryan criticized the manner in which the administration carried out the mission, not the premise of intervening militarily to prevent genocide.

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