Qadhafi death blunts GOP’s critique
The death of Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi Thursday has sharpened the contrast between President Barack Obama’s recent successes on the foreign policy front and the scattershot criticism offered by his Republican challengers.
Qadhafi’s death came seven months after Obama and European leaders launched a military campaign, eventually headed up by NATO, aimed at preventing the Libyan leader from massacring his own people. The NATO effort eventually became closely integrated with rebel forces in Libya and carried out thousands of air strikes aimed at protecting them from Qadhafi’s regime and his loyalists.
Republican presidential hopefuls have criticized Obama from all sides of the Libya issue — arguing that he acted too slowly and deferred to U.S. allies, that he ramped up the effort without adequate explanation, and that he shouldn’t have acted at all.
But the death of the Qadhafi, following the triumph of rebel forces in overthrowing his government, allowed Obama to declare success in a statement in the Rose Garden. “Today, we can definitively say that the Qadhafi regime has come to an end,” he said, adding that “we achieved our objectives.”
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in New Hampshire, argued that the decision to tackle the problem through NATO, with the U.S. in a supporting role, was a wise one. “NATO got it right. NATO got it right,” he said. “America spent $2 billion total and didn’t lose a single life.”
After enduring years of Republican attacks for a feckless and weak foreign policy, Obama has scored a couple of dramatic victories abroad in recent months. In May, U.S. Navy SEALs killed Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in a daring nighttime raid inside Pakistan. And just last month, a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic militant viewed as a key recruiter of terror operatives for Al Qaeda affiliates.
But on the campaign trail in Iowa Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, while welcoming the news of Qadhafi’s death, dodged questions about whether Obama deserved any credit for the outcome.
“About time,” Romney told KSJC-AM. “This was a tyrant who has been killing his own people and of course is responsible for the lives of American citizens lost in the Lockerbie attack. And I think people across the world recognize that the world is a better place without Muammar Qadhafi.”
In March, however, Romney faulted Obama for “following the French into Libya.”
And in July, the former Massachusetts governor complained to a New Hampshire audience that Obama’s handling of Libya reflected “mission creep and and mission muddle.”
A Romney adviser, Eric Fehrnstorm, defended Romney’s approach Thursday and said Qadhafi’s death was no vindication for Obama.
“Mitt Romney has responded to the situation in Libya as it has developed. It is the president who has been completely unclear regarding what his intention was with respect to our military’s involvement in Libya,” Fehrnstrom said. “The fall from power and subsequent death of Qaddafi brings to end a brutal chapter in Libya’s history – but that does not validate the president’s approach to Libya.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement Thursday welcoming Qadhafi’s demise, but expressing no view on the process that led up to it.
“The death of Muammar el-Qaddafi is good news for the people of Libya. It should bring the end of conflict there, and help them move closer to elections and a real democracy,” Perry said.
Other Republicans, reflecting what has been criticized by some party elders as isolationism, have been against the Libyan intervention from the beginning. At a debate last month, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said flatly that “it was wrong for the president to go into Libya.”
At another debate Tuesday, she faulted Obama for military adventurism both in Libya and elsewhere.
“He put us in Libya. He is now putting us in Africa. We already were stretched too thin, and he put our special operations forces in Africa,” Bachmann complained.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman issued a statement Thursday calling Qadhafi’s death “positive news for freedom loving people everywhere,” but he suggested he was still opposed to U.S. participation in the NATO mission there.
“I remain firm in my belief that America can best serve our interests and that transition through non-military assistance and rebuilding our own economic core here at home,” he said.
While the 2012 GOP field offered no credit to the White House, one of the party’s major foreign policy voices, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has criticized Obama for not acting more aggressively in Libya, quickly bestowed such praise.
“It is a great day. I think the administration deserves great credit,” McCain said on CNN. McCain, who repeatedly pressed Obama to be more assertive in pressing for Qadhafi’s ouster and aiding the rebels added: “Obviously, I had different ideas on the tactical side but…the world is a better place.”
The fact that some in the GOP criticized Obama for leading from behind while others said he is too quick to send U.S. troops abroad suggests a growing lack of foreign policy consensus within the Republican Party, one Democratic foreign policy analyst said.
“The Republican Party right now has attacked both its ‘neo-con’ elite and its ‘traditional-con’ elite,” said Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network. “They sort of don’t know what they think.
They don’t listen to their own people…they just don’t have a coherent worldview.”
Still, some foreign policy experts said Obama’s ability to claim credit for Qadhafi’s downfall or the broader NATO success is limited because the U.S. was not at the forefront of those pressing for military action in Libya.
“They’re into the situation because the French and the British talked the United States into getting involved,” said Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “They had a stranglehold over us because they’re helping us in Afghanistan, which is not their favorite war.”
While Obama has been hit repeatedly for “leading from behind,” even the limited U.S. role in Libya required some assertive executive action on his part, particularly after Congress failed to bless the operation. Obama defied some of his legal advisers by continuing to provide American Predator drones to the mission despite language in the War Powers Resolution that calls for the U.S. withdraw its forces from hostilities if Congress doesn’t endorse such a mission within 90 days.
“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground,” Obama said Thursday, “we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.”
But while the White House claimed some vindication for the president’s approach, it took care to keep the spotlight on the Libyan rebels.
“The president views this as a victory for the Libyan people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “We believe — the president believes that the actions taken by his administration and by NATO have helped the Libyan people reach this day and that they now have an opportunity to secure a much brighter and more democratic future and that was the goal all along.”
Libyans “own what happened and they should be rightly proud of what they accomplished,” Carney said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, traveling in Pakistan, said Qadhafi’s demise lifted a burden from Libya’s fledgling government.
“If it is true, then that is one more obstacle removed from being able to get on with the business of announcing a government and trying to unify the country. They have a very steep climb ahead of them,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Fox News during a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Having him out of the picture, I think, will give them more breathing space.”
Many Republican officials who welcomed Qadhafi’s demise seemed intent on offering credit to anyone other than Obama.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who visited Libya with McCain, said in a statement: “Today marks the end of Qadhafi’s reign and a new opportunity for freedom, prosperity and a voice in the global community for Libyans. The Administration, especially Secretary Clinton, deserve our congratulations.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also traveled to Libya, told Fox News on Thursday that Europeans were at the forefront of the effort and deserve most of the credit.
“Ultimately, this is about the freedom and liberty of the Libyan people. But let’s give credit where credit is due: it’s the French and British that led on this fight and probably even led on the strike that led to Qadhafi’s capture or, you know, to his death,” the Republican Senator from Florida said.
Rubio added that Obama “did the right things, he just took too long to do it and didn’t do enough of it.”
Carney suggested that many of the criticisms leveled at Obama were vague and opportunistic.
“What alternative action were they suggesting? Were they suggesting U.S. troops on the ground…unilateral U.S. action?” he asked.
After 42 years in power, Qadhafi went into hiding on August 21 with the fall of Tripoli to opposition forces. According to reports, several members of his family fled the country several weeks ago.