Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, complained last month about President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya.
As The New York Times recounted Monday, Romney accused Obama of “mission muddle” for expanding the military’s role from enforcing a no-fly zone to trying to stop dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s attacks on his people.
“Now the president is saying we have to remove Gadhafi,” he said, adding, “Who’s going to own Libya if we get rid of the government there?”
But on Monday, after rebels had pushed into the Libyan capital, Romney told Fox News that “the world celebrates the idea of getting rid of Gadhafi.”
As the Times notes, Romney’s comments demonstrate the problem Republican presidential candidates are having with Libya as they try to stake out positions. Their party is deeply split on the issue.
Before Obama ordered an aerial campaign to enforce the no-fly zone, some Republicans called for more aggressive action and said he was moving too slowly. When he worked to form an international coalition, with NATO taking the lead, he was criticized by some Republicans for being weak. They said the United States could act alone. After limited airstrikes, Obama was met by Republicans who complained about what they said were unclear objectives. Some lawmakers — both Republicans and Democrats — questioned whether he had the legal authority to act without Congress’ consent.
Republican presidential contenders Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have argued against U.S. involvement, claiming the nation has no prevailing national security interest in Libya. However, security experts share a grave concern about Gadhafi’s stockpiles of mustard gas and shoulder-fired rocket launchers ending up in terrorists’ hands, and the United States and troops serving in the region would certainly be targeted. The further destabilization of the region also poses its own threat.
Foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and surrounding countries, is difficult. The United States has had to deal with dictators in the region for decades and negotiate delicate tribal politics to try to protect American interests. When the Arab Spring uprisings started, the United States had to walk a fine line between encouraging nascent democracy movements and intervening in some way. Today’s freedom fighter can become tomorrow’s dictator.
The complexity of foreign policy isn’t easily translated on the campaign trail. It’s easy to say America isn’t the world’s policeman, but it’s much more difficult to decide whether to get involved. Does the United States stand by if a dictator attacks his own people, massacring them? In what cases does the nation get involved?
Platitudes or ad hominem attacks won’t work. Presidential candidates should more carefully consider the issues.