The GOP line on Libya

President Obama took an enormous risk by agreeing to intervene militarily in Libya. Military resources were stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq; U.S. military commanders were deeply skeptical; Pentagon chief Robert Gates urged the president not to act in Libya; and there was no great appetite among Americans for a third conflict in the Middle East. What’s more, there were all kinds of credible questions about whether this mission had a meaningful chance of success.

But it did succeed and the gamble paid off. Gadhafi and his regime are no more. There’s ample room for a fair debate about whether the mission was wise, but predictions of failure proved to be incorrect.

When it comes to American politics, the next question is what in the world Republicans are going to say about it.

Mitt Romney has struggled badly to even pretend to understand national security and foreign policy. Today offered another reminder of just how lost Romney is on international affairs.

Have you had any difficulty discerning Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney’s precise position on the US involvement in the NATO mission in Libya?

The one consistency has been criticism of President Obama. But beyond that, he’s seemed a bit all over the Libyan map.

ABC’s report identified five different positions Romney has taken on the U.S. mission in Libya this year, and as my friend Elon Green notes today, there’s actually a sixth: in his book, Romney accused Obama of appeasing Gadhafi. I’d imagine Romney would drop this attack now, but I suppose one never knows with that guy.

It’s worth noting that among Republican presidential candidates, there are two distinct groups, with very different challenges. One group, which includes Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul, opposed U.S. intervention in Libya from the outset. For them, the question is fairly straightforward: does the end of Gadhafi and his regime change their mind or do they make the case that the mission was a mistake, regardless of the outcome?

But it’s Romney who has the tougher task. Sifting through his various positions, the former governor ultimately seemed to believe the mission was worthwhile, but the president was about going about this all wrong. For him, the problem wasn’t with the intervention, so much as with questions about 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 succeeded, but the effort wasn’t worth the costs, fine. It’s clearly a legitimate area of debate. But Romney’s line — in effect, Obama was bound to screw this up — leads to inconvenient questions for the inexperienced former governor now that developments have unfolded the way the White House wanted.

It’s equally problematic for congressional Republicans, by the way, who overwhelmingly opposed the administration’s policy. Have they changed their minds? Will anyone even ask them?

As for “leading from behind,” it’s looking pretty good right about now.