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.”
Rick Santorum churlishly tried to deny Obama credit for the victory our military support just assisted. ”Ridding the world of the likes of Gadhafi is a good thing, but this indecisive President had little to do with this triumph,” he said in a statement.
But give credit to those candidates for at least addressing a NATO-backed rebellion in the Middle East overthrowing a longtime US adversary. Half of the GOP field has simply ignored the event, since it is difficult to fit into their partisan framework.
Of course, foreign policy is also a soft spot for most Republican candidates. All Republicans must wrestle with President Bush’s failures to pacify Afghanistan, catch Osama bin Laden, spread democracy in the Middle East, enhance American popularity or prestige abroad, or manage the Iraqi occupation. Obama, by contrast, killed bin Laden, has seen the Arab Spring rise on his watch, drawn down troops in Iraq without disaster unfolding, and more successfully combated Al Qaeda than Bush did. All that makes this a hard time to criticize Obama, particularly on the grounds that he is soft on national security. Qaddafi’s departure will make it no easier.
Moreover, the GOP field right now is a group with virtually no foreign policy expertise. Composed primarily of former governors and House backbenchers, only Huntsman can claim any significant foreign policy experience. And several candidates have shown themselves to be especially incoherent or ignorant on the Middle East.
Back in March Newt Gingrich made a series of contradictory and controversial statements on US involvement in Libya. On March 7, he called for a no-fly zone “this evening,” explaining, “All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” But on March 23, after the no-fly zone had begun, he said he opposed it. “We are not in a position to go around the world every time there’s a local problem and intervene.” Having taken two diametrically opposed positions, anything he says now will counter one of them, so he is probably reluctant to contradict himself yet again.
Pizza magnate Herman Cain made his biggest gaffe of the campaign when he made a statement in May that exposed his total unfamiliarity with the issue of the Palestinian right of return, so he may be wary of weighing in on foreign policy as well.
Foreign policy divides the Republican candidates as no other issue does. The only interesting part of the last debate was seeing Rick Santorum and Ron Paul debate US policy towards Iran. Paul had also opposed the Libyan intervention, but has been surprisingly quiet on Qaddafi’s downfall.
It seems, though, that there is one thing the Republicans can always agree upon: never to credit Barack Obama for anything, even an outcome they sought.