By Ian Swanson - 10/20/11 11:15 PM EDT
The death of Moammar Gadhafi represents another major foreign policy victory for President Obama, who backed a months-long air campaign in Libya while facing criticism from the left and the right.
Obama stared down congressional skeptics across the political spectrum in ordering the strikes just 18 months after becoming the first U.S. president to shake Gadhafi’s hand.
Gadhafi’s death is unlikely to significantly bolster Obama’s reelection chances, but the issue, supporters say, shows the president’s leadership skills and it will surely be cited next year on the campaign trail.
Through it all, Obama kept his resolve. He addressed his critics in March, going so far as to dispute any comparison between Libya and Iraq.
“Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya,” Obama said at the time.
On Thursday he basked in the second greatest foreign policy triumph of his administration, after the successful operation this spring that killed Osama bin Laden. Gadhafi’s death comes less than a month after the U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.
“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,” a triumphant Obama said Thursday from the Rose Garden.
“This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world,” he said. “We’ve taken out al Qaeda 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 Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
Obama survived legislative efforts to defund the military mission and calls that he had violated the War Powers Resolution in ordering the air strikes. Measures to provide and limit congressional authorization failed, as did a measure to defund the military operation.
The administration initially suggested the Libyan effort could last a matter of days, and Republicans criticized the White House when the military action dragged on for weeks and then months.
For the unwavering Obama, Thursday came the big payoff as Gadhafi’s hopes for returning to power ended in a field outside his hometown of Sirte.
The deposed Libyan leader, whose support for terrorist attacks against the U.S. included the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was pulled from a storm drain, where he had tried to hide from forces loyal to Libya’s new government.
The Defense Department on Thursday shot down reports that a U.S. drone aircraft was used.
A U.S. official confirmed to The Hill Thursday evening that a U.S. asset was used to strike a convoy in the Sirte area, but he could not confirm that it was the NATO asset that prompted Gadhafi to flee his vehicle.
In their comments, Obama and other administration officials appeared to take aim at critics who lambasted the danger and price of the Libyan intervention while supporting the Iraq war.
Obama, who opposed the Iraq war and criticized the Bush administration’s unilateral approach to foreign affairs, had emphasized the U.S. could not always take the lead on military actions.
On Thursday, he said the Libyan mission “demonstrated what collective action can achieve,” while Vice President Biden called the Libyan policies the “prescription” for future foreign relations.
“NATO got it right,” Biden said. “In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn’t lose a single life. This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has in the past.”
Yet, as long as unemployment is high and the economy is stagnant, foreign policy victories are unlikely to help Obama much in a tough reelection battle in 2012. Neither the killing of Laden nor the fall of Gadhafi does anything to lower the nation’s unemployment rate.
The contrast in the president’s poll numbers on his handling of the economy and foreign affairs are striking.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2 found that 35 percent of respondents approve of the president’s stewardship on the economy, while 61 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, his approval/disapproval numbers this summer on the threat of terrorism were 62-32.
Thursday’s news allowed anxious congressional Democrats to rally around their president’s leadership on the foreign stage.
“The strong action taken by the United States, led by President Obama, and NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League proves the power of the world community working together,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said in a statement.
Some Republicans, who have been ripping the president for the state of the economy, offered lukewarm praise. Others declined to credit the administration whatsoever.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is considered the front runner to be the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012, said Thursday was not a day for “pointing fingers” before criticizing Obama for taking too long to get involved in Libya.
“Ultimately, it’s about the freedom and the liberty of the Libyan people,” Rubio said on Fox News. “But let’s give credit where credit’s due, it’s the French and the British that lead on this fight and probably even on the strike that lead to his capture or to his death.”
GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney didn’t mention Obama in comments that said the world is a better place without Gadhafi, while conservative rival ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said Obama deserved no credit for Gadhafi’s downfall.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the administration prevented a massacre at Benghazi, a rebel stronghold where Gadhafi had threatened to unleash his forces, but waited too long to get involved.
“We led from behind,” McCain said Thursday.
Obama entered the Oval Office as a novice on the international stage, criticized for a naïve outlook on the world.
He still earns conservative condemnation for his campaign promise to reach out to enemies as well as friends as part of an effort to re-shape U.S. foreign policy and improve the nation’s standing in the world.
But three years into his term, both the bin Laden and Libya events suggest Obama can be steely in making decisions about U.S. force, and in sticking with them.
Justin Sink and Bob Cusack contributed to this story.
This story was updated at 9:10 p.m.