Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) participates in a news conference at the National Press Club, on March 18, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)
Chief correspondent

Prospective Republicans presidential candidates have pounded President Obama this week over his handling of the war in Libya, but there is as much lack of clarity in some of their critiques as they claim exists in the administration’s policy.

With Obama on the defensive over U.S. military intervention in Libya, the potential candidates have joined what is a bipartisan chorus in raising questions about the president’s policy, his consultation with Congress and his explanations to the American people.

The 2012 contenders want Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi out. They want the United States to lead. They are skeptical of the role of the United Nations and the Arab League. They want no protracted engagement. But few have offered anything approaching an exit strategy.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has been accused of flip-flopping on the wisdom of military intervention, which he says is a misreading of what he said and when he said it. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney supports the current mission while saying the president has no coherent foreign policy in Libya or elsewhere. But he hasn’t said explicitly that he would have moved unilaterally with military action or what that would have involved.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty says the decision to implement a no-fly zone may have come too late to save rebel forces from defeat, but he, too, has had little else to say. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin wants a quick and decisive victory and an equally quick withdrawal. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, questions Obama’s leadership but also harbors doubts about the longer-run consequences of military intervention.

Palin was the latest to weigh in on the controversy. She spoke Wednesday night on Fox News with host Greta Van Susteren after returning to the United States from a trip to India and Italy.

“As long as we’re in it, we’d better be in it to win it, and if there’s doubt, we get out,” she said. “Win it means Gaddafi goes and America gets to get on out of there and let the people of Libya create their own government, choose their own leader, and America — no nation building. We get out. We take care of our affairs elsewhere.”

Palin said she expects to see Gaddafi dead, either at the hands of the rebel forces or American and allied forces. “Gaddafi has the blood of innocent Americans on his hands,” she said, referring to Libya’s role in the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that blew up Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 people. “He needs to be held accountable for that. Though it happened all those years ago, now’s our opportunity to make sure he is held accountable.”

Her critique carried an echo of George W. Bush’s unilateralist approach to foreign policy. “America will have failed if we turn over command and control of this mission and the mission of ousting Gaddafi is not fulfilled,” she said. “It will be failure. People across the world look to America to lead on an international affair like this.”

But Palin, like Obama, stopped short of explaining how the United States should extract itself from Libya. Nor did she talk about a post-Gaddafi Libya and the prospects for ensuring that a stable government emerges from the conflict.

Gingrich spent much of Wednesday trying to untangle what appeared to be contradictory statements about military intervention. On March 7, he told Fox News he would implement a no-fly zone “this evening” if he were president. On Wednesday, he told NBC’s “The Today Show,” “I would not have intervened.”

No contradiction, Gingrich said by telephone. He was against military intervention until Obama declared March 3 that Gaddafi had to go. Once Obama made Gaddafi’s ouster U.S. policy, he said, he would have moved quickly with military force to put a no-fly zone into effect and take other steps to get rid of the Libyan leader.

“Prior to March 3, I would have strongly recommended an Eisenhower-Reagan model,” he said. What he meant was a covert effort, largely with help from others in the region, to topple Gaddafi. “You should have said nothing. Be very quiet. Condemn the violence. Do everything you can covertly,” he added.

Once Obama said Gaddafi had to go, Gingrich said, his views changed. “The U.S. is now committed to replacing Gaddafi, and so we had better replace Gaddafi. . . . The president, I hope, understands that he has pitted the prestige of the United States on replacing Gaddafi.”

He said the administration now should be doing all it can to funnel arms and assistance to the rebel forces through intermediaries in the Middle East. He held out the possibility that the current policy will work but argued it still has damaged the president. “If Gaddafi leaves, this will all become a really minor memory,” he said, “but one more memory that weakens the administration.”

Romney spoke to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. “I support military action in Libya,” he said. “I support our troops there in the mission that they’ve been given. But let me also note that thus far the president has been unable to construct a foreign policy, any foreign policy. . . . Without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he’s tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.”

Hewitt asked: Did Obama wait too long to strike in Libya? Romney answered implicitly. “There’s no question but that his inability to have a clear and convincing foreign policy made him delegate to the United Nations and the Arab League a decision about our involvement there,” he said.

But he then referred back to the Lockerbie bombing, not the rebel uprising, as the apparent justification for getting rid of Gaddafi. He suggested he would have moved unilaterally but did not say so explicitly. Nor did he outline the steps that should be followed now to oust the Libyan dictator. Aides said his comments spoke for themselves.

Barbour initially declined to criticize the president. But on Wednesday in a radio interview, he said the administration hasn’t provided the kind of leadership other countries have always looked to the United States to provide. “We see that when you don’t have strong leadership from the strongest country in the world, then everybody else scatters out and breaks up,” he said.

Barbour, however, continued to express reservations about a military mission, as he did before the no-fly zone went into effect. Asking “what are we doing in Libya,” he said, “We have to be careful, in my mind, about getting into nation building exercises, whether it’s in Libya or somewhere else.”

The Republicans sound more hawkish than the president. They appear far more enthusiastic than Obama about the unilateral use of military force. But like the president, they are grappling with a conflict and conditions that make certitude difficult, and their statements show it.