The irony is delicious. Candidate Barack Obama ran for office on a platform of rushing for the exits in Iraq and getting the “good war” in Afghanistan right. We are now contemplating keeping substantial troops in Iraq (as former Bush officials advised), and support for the effort in Afghanistan is being manned largely by conservative foreign policy gurus willing to buck their own party and criticize their own presidential contenders. Now comes a letter from Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank headed by Bill Kristol, Dan Senor and Robert Kagan, trying to restrain Republicans from cutting off support for a worthy, albeit entirely mishandled, war in Libya. A who’s who in the neoconservative foreign policy world writes to the Republicans in the House. Thirty-eight signatories urge:

We thank you for your leadership as Congress exercises its Constitutional responsibilities on the issue of America’s military actions in Libya. We are gravely concerned, however, by news reports that Congress may consider reducing or cutting funding for U.S. involvement in the NATO-led military operations against the oppressive regime of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Such a decision would be an abdication of our responsibilities as an ally and as the leader of the Western alliance. It would result in the perpetuation in power of a ruthless dictator who has ordered terrorist attacks on the United States in the past, has pursued nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and who can be expected to return to these activities should he survive. To cut off funding for current efforts would, in short, be profoundly contrary to American interests.

The signatories fully acknowledge the incompetence of the Obama administration, but urge Congress to hold firm, and not just for the sake of this operation, as important as it may be:

What would be even worse, however, would be for the United States to become one of those irresolute allies. The United States must see this effort in Libya through to its conclusion. Success is profoundly in our interests and in keeping with our principles as a nation. The success of NATO’s operations will influence how other Middle Eastern regimes respond to the demands of their people for more political rights and freedoms. For the United States and NATO to be defeated by Muammar al-Qaddafi would suggest that American leadership and resolution were now gravely in doubt — a conclusion that would undermine American influence and embolden our nation’s enemies.

What is both sad and scary is that the president is incapable or unwilling to make this argument himself. Instead, he’s making a specious argument on the War Powers Act. There is nothing in that paragraph that the president shouldn’t be saying to the country and in conversation with Congress. He doesn’t do so because either his foreign policy attention span (except when it comes to Israel-pushing) is short or because he fears his own Democratic left. It’s a pity that more than two years into his term, Obama needs Republicans to explain his war.

As for the Republicans, both the House members and the presidential candidates have a choice. Criticize the president and push for an improved Libya policy, or criticize the president and join the Dennis Kucinch wing of the Democratic Party. If Republicans can’t be compelled to do the right thing out of principle, maybe they should consider this: In all likelihood, Gaddafi eventually will be killed or toppled. Do Republicans want to allow Obama that victory lap all to himself?