Gaddafi's Death: Vindication for Obama?

The death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday has quieted some of President Obama’s foreign policy critics. Obama has previously taken some heat for his decision to commit U.S. troops in the NATO-led military campaign against the Libyan leader.

Now, Obama’s GOP challengers are struggling to unify their criticism of Obama’s tactics. However, Obama’s temporary success is unlikely to lead to more votes in 2012.

According to Politico, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney welcomed the death of Gaddafi but dodged questions as to whether the president deserved any credit for the results. Texas Gov. Rick Perry also released a generic statement, expressing relief that the tyrant was declared dead but offering up no support for Obama:

“The death of Muammar el-Qaddafi is good news for the people of Libya. It should bring the end of conflict there, and help them move closer to elections and a real democracy.”

Criticism of Obama’s Libyan policies from the GOP have taken the full gamut: some GOP members criticized Obama for committing troops at all (Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann) while others have criticized him for being too slow to respond (Arizona Senator John McCain). At this point, it seems the GOP has no unified message as to how it would have dealt with Libya, if at all.

“The Republican Party right now has attacked both its ‘neo-con’ elite and its ‘traditional-con’ elite,” said Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network to Politico. “They sort of don’t know what they think. They don’t listen to their own people … they just don’t have a coherent worldview.”

Still, some pundits declare that Obama should not be too hasty in claiming credit for the mission’s success. After all, they say, the United States’ role in the mission was limited and was not at the forefront of the military action in Libya. Rather, the U.S. played a supporting role and only seemed to be in the conflict because the French and British requested American involvement. It was unlikely that the U.S. could deny the request because the two allies have been aiding America in Afghanistan, a very unpopular war in both European countries.

Nevertheless, for the time being it seems Gaddafi’s death has somewhat vindicated Obama’s risky and gutsy decision to interfere in Libyan affairs.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s weakness seemed to be his lack of foreign policy experience. However, with the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May, top terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki last month, and now Gaddafi, it seems the president’s successes overseas may actually top that of his domestic accomplishments, much of which are unpopular to many Americans.

The president’s message was clear on Thursday as he stood for his victorious press conference in the Rose Garden: the U.S. can protect citizens of other countries from terrorism without waging a full-scaled war and without a single American dying. This was a clear moment in which the president was able to distance himself from the unpopular politics that surrounded the war in Iraq.

However, Obama’s foreign policy success is not expected to translate into votes for the upcoming presidential election in 2012.

“Gaddafi’s death will do little to benefit President Obama politically. Jobs, not foreign policy, top the list of voter concerns,” James Lindsay, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Christian Post.

“Election Day 2012 is more than a year away. By the time it comes around Gaddafi’s death will be a distant memory in political terms.”

Voters do not typically vote for a presidential candidate based on foreign policy agendas. Americans are much more focused on domestic issues and, considering the poor state of the economy, that focus is not likely to shift in 2012.

Gallup has released polls this year measuring the top issues of concern for U.S. voters. Each time, approximately 75 percent of participants have claimed the economy to be the most important issue they think about when voting. On the flip side, only approximately 1.5 percent named foreign policy issues as the most important.

President Obama can share in the frustrations of President H.W. Bush for the lack of voter enthusiasm for foreign policy and perhaps learn a thing or two from his predecessor’s mistakes. Bush stood victorious in the early 1990s after successfully waging war in the Persian Gulf. His approval ratings shot up to the 90 percent range. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, boldly declared in 1990 that a new domestic agenda was not needed and that “there [was] not a single piece of legislation that [needed] to be passed in the next two years."

Voters disagreed. The first President Bush was replaced by the domestically-focused and economically savvy President Bill Clinton.

If he is determined not to go down that same road, President Obama must focus on the issues facing Americans at home and not get sidetracked with foreign policy issues, though successful they may be.

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