Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Conservative Principles… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines — Likely Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich conceded Saturday that he made conflicting statements about U.S. involvement in Libya, but he blamed them on contradictions in President Obama's policy.
The former House speaker called for a no-fly zone early this month after Obama said that Moammar Kadafi "must leave." Last week, Gingrich backtracked, saying he would not have intervened using U.S. and European forces.
Addressing an audience of conservative activists, Gingrich explained that when he advocated the no-fly zone, he was merely "trying to follow Obama" and did not favor intervention. But once Obama said the Libyan dictator should go, Gingrich said, "he pitted the prestige and power of the United States against a dictator who's been anti-American for over 40 years."
Gingrich joined other potential GOP contenders at a daylong conference in Iowa, the first state in the presidential nomination process.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is moving closer to a presidential run, gave Libya a lightning-fast fly-by in a speech devoted largely to "tea party" themes of spending and taxes.
Noting that Obama had just engaged U.S. military forces in a third conflict, she quipped, "Talk about March Madness," a reference to the NCAA college basketball tournament. "Can anybody say Jimmy Carter?"
Later, in a brief interview, Bachmann said she would not have intervened in Libya "primarily because we don't know who the opposition forces are." The three-term congresswoman, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the government "didn't have enough intelligence to know the outcome of what U.S. intervention would take. So, we need to have an endgame before you can go."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, another likely 2012 Republican contender, confined his remarks to domestic issues and never mentioned Libya. In a brief interview, he blamed a strict time limit for the omission.
Barbour said that before commenting further he wanted to see what Obama had to say in his speech to the nation Monday night. But Barbour said that "if we're going to commit our resources, our people, particularly, we need to lead, we need to decide; we don't need to dither while we're waiting for the Arab League to tell us what to do. We need to be very careful about nation-building in Libya or anywhere else."
Gingrich has been one of the few potential Republican candidates willing to say what he would do about Libya if he were president, and the backlash against his comments may suggest why party rivals have been more cautious.
"When the president decides to take the country to war," Gingrich said, "it's a serious and pressing national dialogue and it ought to be discussed as a public policy issue." He declined to second-guess others for not speaking out.
In his remarks to the Des Moines conference, organized by Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, Gingrich called for the use of U.S.-trained and -equipped Arab troops from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Iraq as ground advisors to the rebels, and for "using all of Western air power as decisively as possible."
To whistles and cheers from the audience, Gingrich ridiculed what he portrayed as Obama's uncertain leadership in the crisis.
"We need a commander in chief with the courage to tell the truth, not a spectator in chief who is confused about whether his job is kicking a soccer ball or leading the United States," he said.
Most of the Republican contenders, including Gingrich, have criticized Obama for being slow to consult with Congress about the U.S.-led enforcement of a no-fly zone.
"To say to us Americans he's relying on a collection of dictators called the Arab League and a corrupt institution called the United Nations — and by the way, he didn't quite get around to consulting the U.S. Congress — that is a fundamentally false model of American government," Gingrich said to applause.
He told reporters that he had consistently favored U.S. aid to the anti-Kadafi rebels, without the use of American forces.
"If the Western alliance wants to get rid of Kadafi, the fact is they'll get rid of Kadafi. It's just a question of how fast they want to do it, whether or not that's their goal. I mean, I can't tell what their goal is," Gingrich said.