Why don’t conservatives love freedom?

Judging by last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, that’s a fair question. As Egyptians overthrew the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak, politicians who spoke at the annual CPAC gabfest in Washington ranged from silent to grumpy on the subject.

Mitt Romney, perhaps the leading Republican presidential contender, gave a speech without once mentioning the upheaval in Cairo that may signal the most important geopolitical shift since the end of the Cold War. You’d think that anyone who wanted to be president would be paying attention and might have an opinion or two.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, also believed to be considering a presidential run, likewise seemed not to have noticed that the world was changing. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty confined himself to criticizing President Obama for somehow appeasing “Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who won the CPAC presidential straw poll, was at least forthright: He said the United States has no “moral responsibility to spread our goodness around the world” and urged the administration “to do a lot less a lot sooner, not only in Egypt but around the world.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was all over the map. At CPAC, he mentioned “what’s happening in Egypt” without commenting further. On Saturday, he told The Associated Press that Mubarak’s resignation was “good for the future” but criticized Obama for publicly supporting the dictator’s ouster. On Sunday, Gingrich explained on ABC’s “This Week” that Obama was right to side with the freedom-loving protesters in Tahrir Square but should have done so privately — as if whispered encouragement, of which there was plenty, had a prayer of making a difference.

Meanwhile, protests sparked by the Egypt uprising are raging across the Arab world — Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain. On Monday, the clamor for democracy surfaced in Iran with the first consequential street demonstrations against theocratic rule since 2009.

House Speaker John Boehner, at least, has come out forcefully on the side of freedom. But why the ambivalence from so many prominent conservatives?

For one thing — and I think this applies to most of the tongue-tied potential candidates — there’s the fact that all of this is happening on Obama’s watch. If everything turns out well, heaven forbid that the president get any credit.

The administration’s public comments as the Egyptian revolution unfolded seemed to take two steps forward and one step back, but there was never any real question about Obama’s sentiments. The United States was by no means in control of events, but the White House used whatever influence it had to push for a transition.

The conservative mantra has been: Obama Is Always Wrong. Therefore there must be something wrong with the way he handled Egypt — even if it appears, from what we’ve seen so far, that the result is a historic opening for democracy in the world’s most troubled region.

The other possible explanation for the lukewarm conservative reaction is a lack of faith in our most cherished democratic values — at least where majority-Islam countries are concerned.

I’m not talking about Glenn Beck’s paranoid fantasy of a vast leftist-Islamist conspiracy for world domination; that’s a job for a licensed professional with a prescription pad. I’m talking about people like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who told CPAC that “democracy as we see it” in Egypt would be all right but grumbled that “a democratic election can produce illiberal results.”

In other words, some Egyptians might vote for candidates put forth by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is unlikely that the group would win a majority in free and fair elections — or even that a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, if it came to that, would necessarily be more dangerous or hostile than the Mubarak regime. But Bolton and some others seem to believe that only political parties of which the United States approves should be allowed to participate in Egyptian elections.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, another presidential contender, used his CPAC speech to blast Obama’s handling of Egypt; for weeks, Santorum has been claiming that elections there would lead straight to “sharia law.” Pam Geller, the conservative blogger who led opposition to the Lower Manhattan mosque, crashed the CPAC conference and told an interviewer from Mother Jones magazine that Mubarak’s fall was “catastrophic” and would lead to sharia law throughout the Middle East.

These conservatives are arguing that the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims cannot be trusted to govern themselves. That’s not what I call loving freedom.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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