Though gunfights continued in the streets of Tripoli and Moammar Kadafi’s whereabouts were unknown, the debate had already begun in political circles Monday about whether the crumbling of the Kadafi regime was a victory for President Obama.
Obama has shouldered criticism for months from Republican rivals, as well as members of his own party, about the cost of the mission and his decision to commit U.S. military resources without congressional approval.
Even Republican candidates who supported some level of U.S. military involvement in Libya, like Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, often accused Obama of devoting more than $1 billion toward a mission that had no clear strategy or endgame.
During a town-hall-style meeting in Wolfeboro, N.H., this summer, Romney described the Libyan operation as “mission creep” and “mission muddle” and suggested that the president was out of his depth. On the other end of the Republican spectrum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul insisted that Libya was “not the American people’s fight” and urged the president not to get involved in Libya’s “civil war.” Other Republican challengers repeatedly mocked Obama for “leading from behind” and insisted for months that the mission was at a stalemate.
So on Monday, with Kadafi’s regime nearing collapse and opposition forces celebrating in the streets, White House officials clearly felt some vindication that their approach had produced promising results – at least at this early stage.
“Throughout the course of the last several months, when people were calling this a stalemate, we said quite the contrary – we had a strategy to make time work against Kadafi,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, “because we could steadily degrade his forces, cut him off from the ability to resupply and give the opposition time and space to organize. And in doing so we’d shift the balance of power within Libya from Kadafi to the opposition so there would essentially be a tipping point, and the opposition would be able to overrun the Kadafi regime. And that’s what’s happened.”
Obama stopped short of declaring victory Monday, noting that the situation on the ground was still fluid, and that Kadafi’s forces still posed a threat. But he credited the international effort with pushing Kadafi’s regime to the brink of collapse, and once again framed U.S. involvement as a humanitarian intervention that had saved lives.
“We proved that you could have an international coalition that could help shoulder the burdens here, so it wasn’t just on the United States,” Rhodes said. “We’ve done this in a way so that the Libyans themselves were the ones to bring about regime change, instead of the United States imposing it and owning it.”
The president’s Republican challengers were notably cautious Monday. Many waited until midday or late afternoon to release statements. And their tone was markedly softer than their rhetoric on the campaign trail. Most of the candidates avoided any mention of Obama’s strategy at all.
The sharpest response came from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has not yet climbed above single digits in the polls: “Ridding the world of the likes of Kadafi is a good thing, but this indecisive president had little to do with this triumph,” Santorum said.
Romney sought to turn the conversation to the Lockerbie, Scotland, bomber, calling on the opposition government “to arrest and extradite the mastermind behind the bombing of Pan Am 103, Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali Megrahi, so justice can finally be done.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who opposed U.S. military operations in Libya, said she hoped the nation’s “intervention there is about to end.”
“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 said in a statement emailed to reporters late Monday.
Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the race last week, and Jon Huntsman Jr., who until recently was Obama’s ambassador to China, released statements offering words of encouragement to the Libyan people.
Perry said the collapse of “a violent, repressive dictatorship with a history of terrorism is cause for cautious celebration.”
“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,” Perry said.
Huntsman said he hoped that Kadafi’s defeat would be “a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people.”