The awkward GOP line on Libya

With the Gaddafi regime facing its demise in Libya, the question for Republican presidential candidates is not an altogether pleasant one: how do they express some satisfaction with the likely results without praising President Obama and/or contradicting their earlier positions?

Now that Qadhafi appears all but ousted, the challenge for Republicans is to figure out how to respond to what looks — at least for now — like a victory for the United States.

For some of Obama’s challengers — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty before he exited the race — one of the key criticisms of the Libya action was that it wasn’t muscular enough to succeed. Romney, for example, said that he supported the intervention, but was concerned about Obama’s “inability to have a clear and convincing foreign policy.”

The task for those candidates will be to cheer Qadhafi’s downfall, while noting that the removal process was imperfect, without looking peevish and small.

For an example of the “peevish and small” contingent, consider John McCain and Lindsey Graham as Exhibit A.

It’s worth noting that among Republican presidential candidates, there are two distinct groups, with very different challenges. One group, which includes Bachmann, Huntsman, and Paul, opposed U.S. intervention in Libya from the outset. For them, like many critics of the policy on the left, the question is fairly straightforward: does the apparent outcome change their mind or do they make the case that the mission was a mistake, regardless of Gaddafi’s downfall? (In case this isn’t obvious, I do not believe in the slightest that the dictator’s ouster would necessarily prove critics of the policy wrong.)

I’d argue the second group arguably has a tougher task. Mitt Romney, in particular, argued repeatedly that he supported U.S. intervention in Libya, but believed President Obama was going about this all wrong. For the former Massachusetts governor, who routinely struggles to pretend to understand national security and foreign policy, the problem wasn’t with the mission, so much as Obama’s ability to execute the mission effectively.

And that’s tougher to address now. If Bachmann and Huntsman want to make the case that the mission drove Gaddafi from power, but the effort wasn’t worth the costs, fine. It’s clearly a legitimate area of debate. But Romney’s line — in effect, Obama’s going to screw this up — leads to inconvenient questions for the inexperienced former governor now that it appears the president’s approach worked out the way the administration had hoped.

As Adam Serwer explained, “GOP partisanship demands that they not acknowledge the president’s role in assembling the global coalition that aided the rebels. Indeed, with the Republican Party wedded to a contradictory image of the president as foreign policy weakling and iron-fisted domestic dictator, we’re going to see a lot of bizarre rationalizing of what happened in an attempt to preserve this narrative of the Obama presidency.”