Gadhafi Death Highlights GOP Foreign Policy Gap With the economy dominating the political debate, Republican candidates have given little attention to foreign policy in their effort to take on Obama next year. But events in Libya suggest they may need to compete with the president on defense and security issues.
NPR logo Gadhafi Death Highlights GOP Foreign Policy Gap

Gadhafi Death Highlights GOP Foreign Policy Gap

President Obama speaks in the Rose Garden on Thursday to discuss the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama speaks in the Rose Garden on Thursday to discuss the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama called the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi the end of a "long and painful chapter" for the people of that country.

Gadhafi's demise, during an insurgency aided early on by U.S. military air attacks ordered by Obama, may also serve as a wake-up call back home for Republican presidential candidates who have largely ignored foreign affairs in their quest to occupy the White House.

"This is going to require that Republican candidates pay more attention to these very important foreign policy issues," says Lee Edwards, a historian of the conservative movement and author of a biography of Ronald Reagan.

"Romney has come out with a 160-page economic report — I would hope that he could come up with 75 or even 50 pages on foreign affairs," Edwards said, referring to GOP candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Romney did release a 44-page foreign policy white paper, "An American Century," earlier this month. He also announced a 22-member foreign policy team, many of whom are veterans of the George W. Bush administration.)

Edwards also suggested that Gadhafi's death should "put to rest" criticisms that Obama "led from behind" when he decided whether and how to intervene in Libya during the Arab Spring.

Republican candidates who had been among those critical of Obama's deliberations and decisions in March when he ordered U.S.-led airstrikes were either notably quiet Thursday (Newt Gingrich), or issuing statements hailing Gadhafi's death without giving Obama any credit (Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann).

Campaigning in Iowa on Thursday afternoon, Romney was asked by reporters whether Obama deserved credit for Gadhafi's death. "Yes, yes. Absolutely," he said, according to Matt Viser, a Boston Globe reporter who tweeted about the moment.

Though the 2012 presidential election will be dominated by the economy and jobs, says Edwards, a distinguished fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, it would not serve the party well if its nominee "displayed abysmal ignorance" about foreign affairs in debates with the president.

History suggests that Obama will get little help in the court of public opinion for the events in Libya. But the president's supporters have been quick to hail what they see as his overseas trifecta: Gadhafi's death, and this year's targeted killings of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki.

"When Obama runs against whomever in 2012, he can say, 'We got bin Laden. We got al-Awlaki. We got Gadhafi,'" says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and former director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This has inoculated Obama against the charge that Democrats are soft on defense," says Korb, who characterized Obama's approach to foreign affairs as "Reagan II."

He summed up Obama's foreign doctrine as, "multilateral if I can, unilateral if I must."

The president got a small, albeit brief bump in the polls after the risky military operation that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.

Those polls, however, suggest that while more Americans approve of how Obama is handling terrorism and foreign affairs than his actions on the economy and jobs, it's had little effect on his overall ratings.

An August Gallup poll found that 42 percent of those surveyed approved of Obama's handling of foreign affairs, while 51 percent disapproved. He earned a 53 percent approval rating for his handling of terrorism, and a 40 percent disapproval rating. Gallup pegged Obama's September overall job approval rating at 41 percent, which tied with August for the lowest monthly approval average of his administration.

And though Gadhafi brutalized his people during more than four decades of iron-fisted control, and ordered the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people, including 189 Americans, his death will have far less resonance domestically than bin Laden's.

"The implications of Gadhafi's death will be less than those stemming from bin Laden's death, which were minimal," says Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor of history and international relations.

"I would resist the inclination to see this as an American 'victory,' with the implications that American power is determinant," he said.

"The killing of a handful of bad guys does not eliminate the threat," Bacevich says, suggesting that Gadhafi's killing may prove a boon to Islamists.

Obama has faced persistent criticism from a swath of his political base for ordering the hit on bin Laden in Pakistan without that country's knowledge, and for engaging in the bombing campaign in Libya to aid the insurgents.

In his Thursday appearance outside the White House, the president took pains to note that "without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end."

And in what certainly will become part of his campaign speeches, he said:

"This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world. We've taken out al-Qaida leaders, and we've put them on the path to defeat. We're winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Libya.

"And now," he said, "working in Libya with friends and allies, we've demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."

The path forward in Libya is fraught with peril and uncertainty, but the president has a campaign script. Edwards would like to see the Republican candidates come up with their own, too — and do it before the Nov. 15 foreign policy debate sponsored by Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute and CNN.

"Traditionally, we like a stout national defense. We go after sworn enemies. I think the president is responding politically to that, and it makes good sense for him to do what he's doing," Edwards says.

"If you look at the Republican possibilities, there seems to be a gap in their general background and experience in foreign policy and national security," he says. "The president is taking advantage of that."