By Ian Swanson - 08/23/11 01:30 AM EDT
The fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi after a NATO bombing campaign and a six-month civil war would represent a significant foreign-policy victory for President Obama.
Despite opposition and heavy criticism from lawmakers in both parties, Obama authorized U.S. forces to back up the NATO mission without seeking authorization from Congress.
It now appears Obama will preside over the end of Gadhafi’s reign.
The end of Gadhafi would be the second significant foreign-policy victory for Obama, after the successful mission he ordered that resulted in the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Less clear is whether the successes will have any impact on the 2012 election, which looks to hinge on the economy.
In a Gallup poll of registered voters released Monday, Obama trailed nominal GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and was tied with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He was only narrowly ahead of GOP candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas).
Still, Obama on Monday defended the decision he made six months ago to authorize action against Libya as preventing a humanitarian disaster while avoiding the placement of U.S. troops on the ground.
“In just six months, the 42-year reign of Moammar Gadhafi has unraveled,” Obama said in an audio statement taped from Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his family are vacationing.
Obama said the decision to launch the NATO bombing campaign took place at a moment when Gadhafi was prepared to slaughter civilians to stay in power, and portrayed the U.S. reaction as setting the stage for Gadhafi’s downfall.
In the face of Gadhafi's aggression, Obama said, "the international community took action.
"An unprecedented coalition was formed that included the United States, our NATO partners and Arab nations. And in March, the international community launched a military operation to save lives and stop Gadhafi's forces in their tracks."
Other steps taken by the U.S. and its partners cut Gadhafi off from his cash and arms — as a result, his forces were steadily degraded, Obama said.
He also hailed the actions of U.S. pilots, who led the bombing mission in its first days before taking a back seat to other NATO allies. Their actions, Obama said, had saved lives, all without putting troops on the ground.
The Libya mission also proved that NATO remains the strongest military alliance, Obama said, and showed “what we can achieve when we stand together as one.”
NATO officials and the Obama administration initially suggested the campaign would last just a matter of weeks, but it then dragged out for months amid reports that NATO forces were running low on supplies.
In Congress, a number of lawmakers tried but failed to either give the mission cover or place limitations on it. A measure to restrict funding for the war failed to win House approval, but the House also rejected a measure that would have provided congressional cover for the mission.
Throughout the criticisms of the Libya campaign, Obama held a steady line, insisting his actions did not violate the War Powers Act because U.S. forces did not face “hostilities” as defined by the law.
He also rejected calls for the U.S. to raise its involvement to get rid of Gadhafi as the war dragged on.
Gadhafi’s grip on power appeared to be coming to an end Monday as Libyan rebels reportedly had taken over most of the capital city of Tripoli.
Gadhafi’s own whereabouts were unknown, though a Pentagon spokesman said U.S. officials believe he remains in Tripoli, according to The Washington Post.
When this story was first published, three of Gadhafi’s sons had reportedly been detained by rebels. These media reports originated from the rebel organization, the National Transitional Council. Several hours later, the council was telling reporters that one of the sons, Muhammed al-Gadhafi, had escaped his captors.
Gadhafi's heir apparent, Saif al-Islam al-Gadhafi, had first been reported captured by the rebels. He has since been videotaped at the Tripoli hotel where foregin journalists, are staying and has been seen around the world as quite alive and defiant of the rebels. Saif al-Islam said that his entire family was still in Tripoli, and he disputed claims that the rebels controlled any part of the city. According to CNN reports Monday night, Gadhafi supporters are fighting back, and rebel claims of control of 90 percent of Tripoli may be overblown.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Gadhafi renounced his nuclear weapons program and tried to win better relations with the West. He has, nonetheless, been a major irritant when not an outright enemy to the U.S. and its allies for decades, and the end of his rule is a historic moment.
Still, there were signs on Monday that Obama’s actions on Libya are likely to remain controversial in Congress.
In a joint statement, hawkish Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said they “regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”
Graham and McCain had argued that it was wrong for the U.S. to take a backseat in the mission.
Looking toward the future, McCain and Graham said: “While Libya's future will of course be made by the Libyan people themselves, the United States must lead the international community to provide the support that our Libyan friends need.”
There are also questions about the shape of the government to follow in Libya, which is expected to lead to new challenges for the U.S.
Already on Monday there were signs of at least one political fight to come.
Gadhafi’s regime carried out the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 189 Americans in 1988.
Romney demanded Monday that the new government in Libya hand over Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted in that bombing, “so justice can finally be done.” The Libyan national was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds two years ago; at the time, he was thought to have only a short time to live.
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—This story was first posted at 1:47 p.m., updated at 3 p.m. and last updated at 9:15 p.m.