Likely Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has met his first debate opponent of the 2012 campaign season: himself.
The former House speaker was quick to criticize President Barack Obama two weeks ago for not being more forceful in leading an international campaign to destroy Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses and save rebels from impending defeat. Gingrich said the United States should tell Gadhafi "that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening."
On Wednesday, he did an about-face.
"I would not have intervened," he said in an interview with NBC News in the morning. "I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gadhafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces."
By afternoon, he issued a statement explaining that he initially pushed for the airstrikes only after Obama declared on March 3 that "it's time for Gadhafi to go."
"Now that we have U.S. forces engaged, any result less than the removal of Gadhafi from power will be considered a defeat. For that reason, I believe we must support the mission and see it through," Gingrich said on his Facebook page.
An aide said Gingrich backed away from his support only after Obama made a humanitarian mission the centerpiece of the military action. That alone wasn't enough to justify the no-fly zone in accordance with the U.N. resolution, the aide said, and cited comments from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that "the goals of this campaign right now are limited, and it isn't about seeing (Gadhafi) go."
"The president's stated goal of removing Gadhafi changed. Gingrich's goal of removing Gadhafi _ since the president made that the goal for the U.S. _ has not changed," Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said. "The only rational purpose for an intervention is to replace Gadhafi."
On Monday, Obama reiterated "it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go." But he said the goal of U.S. military intervention was to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and protect its civilians, not to oust its leader.
For weeks, some of the likely Republican challengers to Obama's re-election campaign have been scathing in assessing Obama's handling of the crisis in Libya. A few called for a more forceful defense of the rebels, who have seized some Libyan cities and threatened Gadhafi's 42-year rule.
"The United States doesn't need anybody's permission. We don't need to have NATO, who frankly, won't bring much to the fight. We don't need to have the United Nations," Gingrich told Fox News Channel on March 7.
"All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening. And we don't have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes."