COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Mitt Romney, after months of chastising President Obama’s actions in Libya, lauded the death of longtime dictator Moammar Khadafy yesterday, and even offered the president a rare — although limited — compliment.
“It’s about time,’’ Romney said during a campaign swing through Iowa. “Khadafy: a terrible tyrant that killed his own people and murdered Americans and others in the tragedy at Lockerbie. The world is a better place with Khadafy gone.’’
Asked at a later event in Council Bluffs whether Obama deserved credit for the killing, he said: “Yes, yes. Absolutely.’’
Romney was the first GOP candidate for president to credit Obama for helping to hasten the strongman’s demise, a departure for a rival who has labeled the president’s foreign policy as feckless and specifically questioned the US mission in Libya.
Romney’s comments on Libya yesterday belie a general reluctance among many in the Republican field to embrace foreign military intervention. Their focus has instead been on courting voters more worried about problems at home than abroad.
Republicans have also been wary of crediting Obama with a foreign policy victory that could bolster his national security credentials. The killing of Khadafy, along with the deaths of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, ranks as one of the milestones of the Obama presidency.
The president seized the opportunity to hail the turn of events.
“Without putting a single US service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end,’’ he said. “This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world.’’
Romney was initially supportive of American military intervention there, saying it was important for the United States and NATO to enforce a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians. But when Obama, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said in a joint statement in April that “so long as Khadafy is in power, NATO must maintain its operations,’’ Romney called it “another example of mission creep and mission muddle.’’
He said he agreed with the assessment of former UN ambassador John Bolton that Obama had set himself up for massive strategic failure by demanding Khadafy’s ouster while restricting military force to the limited objective of protecting civilians.
He also posed a question that still confronts Libya after the fall of Khadafy: “The question that comes up is, ‘Who’s going to take his place,’ ’’ Romney said in July. “Who’s going to own Libya if we get rid of the government there?’’
Like other candidates, Romney couched his statements in broader attacks on Obama’s foreign policy. But Romney also has a personal connection to the Libyan situation: Nicholas Bright, one of his colleagues at Bain & Co, was among the 259 people killed aboard Pan Am Flight 103, which was bombed by Libyan intelligence officers and plummeted into the village of Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who did not weigh in on the military intervention in March because he had not yet entered the presidential race, did not mention the US role in his statement on Khadafy yesterday. Instead, he called the killing “good news for the people of Libya.’’
“It should bring the end of conflict there, and help them move closer to elections and a real democracy,’’ he said. “The United States should work closely with Libya to ensure the transition is successful, and that a stable, peaceful nation emerges.’’
He also sounded a note of caution. “The US must also take an active role in ensuring the security of any remaining stockpiles of Khadafy’s weapons,’’ Perry said.
Other candidates have been much sharper in their criticism of the president’s Libyan policy. Jon Huntsman, who was most recently a member of Obama’s foreign policy team, serving as US ambassador to China, has called American military involvement in Libya a mistake and not vital to the national interest.
Yesterday, the former Utah governor called the killing of Khadafy “just one step in a long and tumultuous turnover that is coming to Northern Africa.’’
“It is my sincere wish that this news accelerates Libya’s transition to a society that respects openness, democracy, and human rights,’’ he said in a statement. “I remain firm in my belief that America can best serve our interests and that transition through nonmilitary assistance and rebuilding our own economic core here at home.’’
Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who has also opposed the US operation in Libya, issued a statement that laid out her hopes the new Libya would be a good partner and US operations would end.
Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who is critical of America’s military presence overseas, did not respond to requests for comment. Paul has denounced the US involvement in Libya as costly and unconstitutional.
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org