Republicans largely cheered on Thursday the apparent killing of Libyan leader Moammar Khaddafy, though a number of the party’s standard-bearers had expressed initial criticism of President Barack Obama’s action to help remove the dictator from power.
Khaddafy’s death after having been deposed in August would seem, at first glance, to provide some measure of validation to Obama’s strategy in Libya. The president authorized the U.S. to join in limited airstikes with NATO in consultation with international partners and institutions.
That decision won him little praise from the GOP, and opposition even from members of his own party, and especially the GOP presidential hopefuls vying for Obama’s job.
Almost none of the candidates had pressed for as aggressive of a strategy as Obama pursued, joining NATO efforts to launch airstrikes targeting Khaddafy himself, and assisting Libyan rebels looking to overthrow the regime.
All of the Republicans candidates found ways to be critical of Obama at the time. But in a reflection that the GOP has shifted to an extent from its more hawkish stance during the Bush administration, few of the candidates endorsed Obama’s intervention there; only two candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – who’s no longer in the race – called for Obama to be more forceful.
But most of the other Republicans in the field might be forced to come to terms with what may be considered an ultimately successful, if extended, operation.
Republicans, particularly on Capitol Hill, were vocally critical of the intervention authorized this spring by Obama, in which U.S. troops joined NATO forces in launching a series of targeted airstrikes aimed at driving Khaddafy from power, and aiding rebel forces in Libya.
Republicans were largely – though not uniformly – critical of the intervention at the time. 225 House Republicans, joined by 70 Democrats, voted in June against a resolution authorizing the campaign against Khaddafy. But the House GOP was more split in a subsequent vote on defunding military action in Libya; 144 Republicans voted for that measure, but 89 Republicans voted against it.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who emerged as one of the foremost critics of the operations in Libya, was one such Republican to split her vote.
"President Obama has failed to articulate our goals and strategies or even provide a vital national interest in Libya,” she said in a statement following those votes. At the same time, in a June presidential debate, Bachmann accused Obama of “not leading” when it came to international policy toward Libya.
She was joined by other candidates in the field in opposition to the strikes against Libya.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said the intervention was “not core to our national security interest,” and argued the U.S. should let the situation “play out.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had advocated establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, but said after Obama launched the effort that he would have not intervened.
And Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a dogged critic of most U.S. intervention, had similarly opposed the intervention in Libya.
Ironically, it was the three candidates who lead in current polling – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry –with the most scant records on the Libyan intervention.
Romney in particular sought to thread the needle, carefully voicing support for the military action in Libya, while sharply criticizing Obama, accusing him of “leading from behind” when it came to the intervention by following the lead of other countries and international bodies like the United Nations.
And Cain condemned Obama for lacking clarity in the president’s approach toward Libya and Syria, but stopped short of voicing opposition to the airstrikes in Libya.
“We need a real clear national security strategy with every nation on the planet, friend or foe. We obviously didn’t have that, because you can see between those two examples [Syria and Libya] inconsistencies between the president’s decision, and in his action,” he said at a debate in May.
And Perry wasn’t even a candidate when Obama first launched the airstrikes; he enjoys the luxury of not having any real criticism in the past against which he’ll be measured.
Virtually all Republicans, even those who were critical of Obama’s initial intervention, celebrated Khaddafy’s killing on Thursday.
"It's about time. Khaddafy, a terrible tyrant, that killed his own people, and murdered Americans and others in the tragedy in Lockerbie. The world is a better place with Khaddafy gone,” Romney said following a town hall meeting in Iowa, per NBC’s Garrett Haake and Alex Moe.
But the question of whether Obama deserves credit (Romney avoided a question in Iowa about whether Obama does) could be the way in which candidates now distinguish themselves from Obama. And beyond that, they’ll keep the pressure on Obama about how he handles the situation going forward.
“The United States should work closely with Libya to ensure the transition is successful, and that a stable, peaceful nation emerges," Perry said in a statement hailing Khaddafy’s death. “The U.S. must also take an active role in ensuring the security of any remaining stockpiles of Qaddafi's weapons. These weapons pose a real danger to the United States and our allies, and we cannot help secure them through simple observation.”