When news emerged from Tripoli on Sunday night that rebels were closing in on the capital city and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was soon to be deposed, it should have been a cause for celebration, even among those of us who opposed American military involvement as ill-advised foreign policy adventurism. Although the future remains uncertain, Qaddafi’s departure should and the opportunity it creates should, in and of itself, be noteworthy to anyone aspiring to lead the free world. Republican presidential aspirants did not need to say much to rise to the occasion: a simple statement of praise for the good news, or hope that Libyans will build a better future, or that the aftermath won’t follow the chaos and mayhem of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, or that the US will be supportive without extending unwise military involvement. But that was asking too much. In many cases, Republicans who want to be president failed to act presidential.
The highest marks go, as usual, to Jon Huntsman. Huntsman had opposed US involvement in the Libyan conflict because we are too over-extended, especially financially, to afford another war. But nonetheless he said on Monday: “Gaddafi has been a longtime opponent of freedom, and I am hopeful—as the whole world should be—that his defeat is a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people who greatly deserve it."
Rick Perry, not known for his sober commentary, issued a similar statement. But Perry pretended that Qaddafi’s regime had just spontaneously combusted, instead of acknowledging the role that the US and its allies played, much less—heaven forbid—praising Obama. “The crumbling of Muammar Ghadafi’s reign, a violent, repressive dictatorship with a history of terrorism, is cause for cautious celebration,” Mr. Perry said in a statement. “The lasting impact of events in Libya will depend on ensuring rebel factions form a unified, civil government that guarantees personal freedoms, and builds a new relationship with the West where we are allies instead of adversaries.”
Not everyone followed their lead. Mitt Romney issued a strange statement demanding that the not yet formed Libyan government extradite Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The Scottish government released Megrahi in 2009. Romney’s demand is politically clever, as it positions him as a more forthright defender of American interests than Obama. But it is wildly unsound on policy grounds. For one thing, al-Megrahi has already been tried, convicted, served time and released. To try him again would violate the constitutional principle of double jeopardy. And the US has more pressing concerns in Libya than further punishing al-Megrahi. Our first demand of the new Libyan government should be that it set up a system of constitutional liberty that safeguards individual freedom using an independent judiciary, free press and free religion. Secondarily they will need to hold elections so as to be democratically governed. Then we can perhaps we can work with them on our own strategic interests in the region. Romney’s focus on al Megrahi is an unhelpful diversion.
Remarkably enough, Michele Bachmann actually made more sense in her response to the Libyan events than did Romney. Bachmann hit similar notes to Huntsman and Perry but prefaced them by reiterating her opposition to the US role in Qaddafi’s ouster. “I opposed US military involvement in Libya and I am hopeful that our intervention there is about to end,” said Bachmann in a statement. “I also hope the progress of events in Libya will ultimately lead to a government that honors the rule of law, respects the people of Libya and their yearning for freedom, and one that will be a good partner to the United States and the international community.”
Bachmann’s comment should not, unfortunately, be taken as a sign that she holds surprisingly realist or dovish views on foreign policy. Rather, as Eli Lake explains in The New Republic, she belongs to the racist school of thought among anti-Muslim bigots on the right who believe Muslims are not capable of democratic self-governance. As Lake writes, “Such ideas almost certainly explain why Bachmann showed little interest in backing the Arab protesters earlier this year. Many neocons attacked President Obama for not doing enough to support the protesters in Egypt, but Bachmann criticized the president from the opposite side.”