By Russell Berman - 03/19/11 11:16 AM EDT
President Obama’s announcement of a U.S. military role in the Libyan conflict on Friday was met mostly with silence from Republican congressional leaders.
The president briefed a bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders at the White House before his speech to the nation, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) withheld comment in the hours after his address.
While Boehner and McConnell have hammered Obama over his handling of the economy and domestic issues, they have kept quiet and occasionally praised the president’s response to the turmoil spreading throughout the Middle East. In February, the speaker said Obama handled the unrest in Egypt “about as well as it could have been handled.”
Before Obama’s address, Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, came out against a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone and said the administration should first seek a declaration of war by Congress.
Spokesmen for Boehner and McConnell declined comment Friday. A House GOP aide said Boehner, who was in Ohio, joined the presidential briefing by conference call. The aide said Boehner did not speak on the call and Obama did not ask for a congressional resolution authorizing U.S. military force in Libya.
GOP leaders have also been largely in sync with administration policy in Afghanistan, despite growing opposition from liberal Democrats.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate issued statements of support Friday for Obama’s announced policy.
The approach taken by congressional Republicans stands in contrast to the positioning of potential GOP presidential contenders, who have grown more critical of Obama on foreign policy in recent weeks.
In addition to the broader critique of Obama’s worldview, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for example, have accused the president of poor leadership on the Middle East. Gingrich said Obama had been “weak and uncertain” on Libya, and Pawlenty pushed the White House to be more aggressive against Moammar Ghadafi.
The Republican National Committee declined to comment as well, despite criticizing Obama for filming a TV segment with ESPN announcing his predictions for the NCAA basketball tournament while international crises unfolded in Japan and the Middle East.
“It’s unfortunate that over the last decade national security has become as much of a political football as it has,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar on the Middle East at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Republican leadership can be applauded and can show what it’s like to be a responsible opposition party by keeping its mouth shut.”
Rubin criticized Obama’s policy as “too little, too late,” but he defended the GOP leadership’s decision to stay quiet. “I do think it’s essential that Republicans stand behind the president when American troops are going into harm’s way.”
Whether the GOP silence signaled an agreement with the policy or merely indifference was unclear, Rubin said, because Republican leaders have focused so intently on economic and domestic issues in recent months.
“I question whether the Republican leadership has that much personal interest in foreign policy and national defense issues,” he said.