WASHINGTON — What to do about Libya and Moammar Gadhafi? It's not only a national security question for President Barack Obama. Twenty months before the next election, it's a difficult political question, too, for the Republicans who hope to take his place as commander in chief.
There are plenty of strong opinions coming from Capitol Hill. Lawmakers of both parties are sounding off, including some calling for immediate military action. But others are urging moderation.
Obama met Wednesday with his top security advisers to discuss a variety of humanitarian and military options. The White House emphasized that key decisions have yet to be made.
Yet, Republicans weighing a possible presidential run — who have commented on Libya — seem to favor a no-fly zone. That includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has criticized Obama for not offering timely support for the Libyan people and has hinted at some kind of U.S. response without being specific.
Others mentioned in the running, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, have not made an issue out of Libya.
Politicians of various stripes "are wary of the very ambiguous situation in Libya," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor. "A week ago, almost anybody would have put their chips on the fall of Gadhafi. But clearly, there's been a reversal of fortune for him. This is causing bipartisan confusion."
Libya was not even mentioned during a candidates' forum Monday in Waukee, Iowa, that focused heavily on domestic issues and was attended by Pawlenty and Santorum.
Among the most outspoken in calling for a no-fly zone are three senators spanning the political spectrum: John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arizona Republican John McCain and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman.
"Every day that goes by, every hour that goes by, innocent Libyans are being attacked and massacred from the air," says McCain.
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations panel, has become the top GOP advocate for moderation. The U.S. should not "launch military intervention into yet another Muslim country, without thinking long and hard about the consequences and implications," Lugar says.
Until the last few days, Libya was hardly mentioned by prospective presidential contenders.
Palin was one of the first potential candidates to speak out, suggesting in a Feb. 23 Facebook entry that the White House was voicing more sympathy for earthquake victims in New Zealand than for Libyans calling for an end to Gadhafi's 42-year-rule.
"We should not be afraid of freedom, especially when it comes to people suffering under a brutal enemy of America," she wrote, also suggesting NATO establish a no-fly zone "so Libyan air forces cannot continue slaughtering the Libyan people." She has not had much to say on Libya since.
Gingrich, Pawlenty and Santorum all came out this week for a no-fly zone of one form of another.
Gingrich, the most outspoken, said the U.S. should impose one immediately— without waiting for the U.N. or NATO. Pawlenty told reporters Obama failed to offer a timely condemnation of a "sociopathic killer" mowing down his own people. Santorum told a Des Moines radio station: "Ronald Reagan bombed Libya. If you want to be Reaganesque, it seems the path is pretty clear here."
President Reagan launched U.S. airstrikes on Libya in 1986 after a bombing at a Berlin disco — which the U.S. blamed on Libya — that killed three people, including two American soldiers. The airstrikes killed about 100 people in Libya, including Gadhafi's young adopted daughter at his Tripoli compound.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says a no-fly zone would be "very important because that way you keep (Gadhafi) from flying mercenaries in." He would also position a naval armada off the Libyan coast.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said much of the talk of a no-fly zone seems divorced from the reality of what's actually happening on the ground.
There is scant evidence that Gadhafi's fixed-wing aircraft are doing much military damage, tracking attack helicopters "requires you to maintain a constant presence" and most of the battle is ground action that "would not really even be affected by a no-fly zone," said Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Liz Sidoti in Washington and Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.