Gadhafi death changes few minds in Senate on Obama handling of Libya war

Senators on Thursday welcomed the death of Moammar Gadhafi, but the development changed few minds about the Obama administration’s handling of the Libya intervention.

Democrats and Republicans agreed the North African nation — and the entire volatile region — will be better off without Gadhafi. And they said the NATO-led military operation should soon begin to be wound down.

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“The passing of Moammar Gadhafi from this earth is definitely not a bad thing,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs subcommittee, told The Hill.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) agreed during a separate interview, saying, “Gadhafi being gone is a good thing.

“Hopefully Libya can show democracy and economic opportunity can be achieved without making the rest of the world an enemy,” Blunt said, taking an apparent swipe at other nations in the region.

Senators from both parties echoed Blunt’s feelings about Gadhafi’s death giving the Libyan people a chance to build a vibrant economy and a functional democratic government. But they diverged on whether Gadhafi’s death vindicated the controversial way President Obama went about sending in U.S. forces to lead, then support, the NATO intervention in Libya.

In the days before and after U.S. and NATO war planes began striking Gadhafi targets, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers charged that Obama had erred by opting against seeking congressional approval of the mission.

U.S. military aircraft carried the load in most areas of the intervention during its opening weeks, including fighter jet and cruise missile strikes as well as aerial refueling and intelligence gathering.

Obama reportedly overruled several senior administration lawyers who argued the operation amounted to the kind of hostilities central to the 1973 War Powers Act, which would require congressional approval.

“It’s not the way they should have done it,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “We knew that eventually they would get him. They should have brought it to Congress, and we should have voted on it. The fact that they finally got him doesn’t justify what happened six months ago.”

Blunt criticized Obama for not intervening sooner, as reports that Gadhafi’s forces were targeting civilians grew.

“I think more air support earlier could have saved additional Libyan lives,” the Missouri Republican told The Hill. “The president’s reluctance to go there and his willingness to go to Uganda is surprising to me.”

“Moammar Gadhafi’s capture doesn’t change the fact that the administration should have gotten Congress’s approval,” Inhofe said in an interview.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was a supporter of the Obama administration’s decision to help rebel forces oust Gadhafi and its handling of the issue in the spring. The news of the Libyan strongman’s death did not alter his view of the controversy in Washington.

“I supported the administration in Libya. I think it was the right policy,” Cardin told reporters. “Here, we acted with international community. It was other countries in the lead. It was no boots on the ground. The regime changed, which is what we wanted to achieve.”

Asked if the president was vindicated by the development, Cardin repeated his support of the decision.

“I don’t think he’s been vindicated,” Cardin said. “I think he did the right thing [and] pursued the right course. He did it in a minimal amount of time, and he did it engaging the international community where the U.S. didn’t have to be in the lead.”

With Gadhafi’s forces mostly defeated and Washington expected to face a price tag for the operation approaching $1 trillion, senators said it is time to begin wrapping up the NATO-led military mission.

“Obviously, you want the Libyans to take on responsibility for their own country,” Cardin said. “So the answer is: Yes — the transition needs to continue."

“I don’t think there’s a significant [U.S. military] presence there now,” Blunt said, “and I think our presence there now should be focused on them helping achieve a democracy.”

Coons told The Hill the U.S. military’s current role of providing aerial refueling to NATO jets, aerial intelligence collection and some strike missions should be wound down “once the mission of protecting civilians is accomplished.”

At a press conference later, Coons said the U.S. presence there, given America’s current “fiscal constraints,” should be “scaled appropriately to the needs of the Libyan people.”

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Overall, there was a rare positive feeling about Gadhafi’s death in the halls of the Senate on Thursday.

“Based on where Libya was at the beginning of this year and where they’re hopefully headed now,” Blunt said, “Americans should feel hopeful about the future of Libya.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said now that Gadhafi is dead, it's time to get on the ground and establish a strong economy and democracy in Libya.

Graham said it was important to secure stockpiles of weapons in Libya that could otherwise fall into the wrong hands.

"Let's get on the ground and help the Libyan people establish a democracy and functioning economy based on free market principles, and when it comes to weapons control, get teams on the ground that can assist this government that can make sure this stuff doesn't fall in the wrong hands," Graham said Thursday on Fox.

"This is an opportunity to take a dictatorship — the mad dog of the Mideast — and replace it with people that live in peace with us. We can do business, have economic ties that will allow American businesses to prosper from a free Libya," Graham said. "So I know we're broke, but let me tell you this — if you disengage the world, you'll regret it. If we miss this opportunity, we'll regret it. They need our help and it's in our interest to help."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), an outspoken critic of the administration's handling of the Libyan intervention, welcomed his death.

"Qaddafi was a tyrant, dictator, and terrorist. He is dead, but he will not be mourned. We may never know the full scope of victims who suffered at his hands," McKeon said in a statement. "We do know that we can count innocent Americans among them. Now, as Libyans breathe a sigh of relief and begin the long and difficult road to freedom, I will say a prayer for those — American and Libyan alike — who did not live to see this day. "


— Daniel Strauss contributed.

This story was posted at 1:43 p.m. and updated at 3:54 p.m.