Unpacking Tuesday Night’s Libya ‘Moment’

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Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Tuesday night’s debate was the tense exchange over how Barack Obama first described the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate that led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. The Romney campaign charges that the White House covered up evidence that the attack was a premeditated action by an organized jihadist group with al Qaeda ties–as opposed to a spontaneous anti-American protest inspired by a video mocking the prophet Muhamad that turned vicious. Republicans say this cover-up is designed to protect Obama’s narrative that he has overseen al Qaeda’s virtual destruction. As Romney foreign policy advisor Richard Williamson said on Fox News, the Benghazi horror is “evidence that his so-called success in the war on terror wasn’t so successful.”

It’s hard to deny a certain mystery in the administration’s descriptions of the attack. Intelligence is certainly imperfect and subject to revision, but Obama officials did cling rather stubbornly to the idea that the video was principally to blame–that the compound assault was, at worst, an opportunistic piggypacking off an anti-video protest–even as evidence mounted that it was not. This left Mitt Romney with a potentially winning argument going into last night’s debate: Is the Obama administration shading the facts to downplay a real and growing terror threat to Americans?

(MORE: What Happened at the Second Presidential Debate)

Unfortunately for Romney, he botched it. When the moment came, Romney pinned everything on Obama’s language in the Rose Garden the day after the attack. And although Romney had a larger point, he overreached on the specific one. Here’s the exchange, with non-substantive edits for length and bolding for emphasis:

MS. CROWLEY: I want to ask you something, Mr. President… Your secretary of state, as I’m sure you know, has said that she takes full responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible. And that’s why nobody is more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I did (sic).

The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.

And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.

MR. ROMNEY: I think it’s interesting the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.

MR. ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.

MR. ROMNEY: I — I — I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.

MS. CROWLEY: It — he did in fact, sir…

PRESIDENT OBAMA:Can you say that a little louder, Candy? (Laughter, applause.)

MS. CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.

MR. ROMNEY: This — the administration — the administration — (applause) — indicated that this was a — a reaction to a — to a video and was a spontaneous reaction.

MS. CROWLEY: They did.

MR. ROMNEY: It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group and — and to suggest — am I incorrect in that regard? On Sunday the — your — your secretary or…

MR. ROMNEY: Excuse me. The ambassador to the United Nations went on the Sunday television shows and — and spoke about how this was a spontaneous reaction.

Romney was essentially accusing the president of lying about his Rose Garden statement. Here’s the critical passage from his remarks that day:

Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks.  We mourned with the families who were lost on that day.  I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed.  And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it.  Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.  Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.  We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done.

But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers.  These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity.  They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.

Republicans are claiming that Obama’s reference to “acts of terror” was a generalized reference to terrorism with no specific application to Benghazi, which earlier in his statement Obama had called “this outrageous and shocking attack,” without using the word “terror.” But the reference to “four more Americans” in the very next sentence strongly suggests that Obama was applying the label to Benghazi. If you’re willing to grant that the debate’s moderator, Candy Crowley (no relation!), had a right to intervene at all, it’s hard to complain about her coming to Obama’s defense on this narrow point.

(MORE: Obama Campaign Bullish after Strong Second Debate)

But the conservatives outraged over Crowley’s interjection mostly overlook the fact that she also defended Romney. (“It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”) And she was right to do so. Wednesday morning the GOP Super Pac American Crossroads emailed reporters examples of the White House contradicting the “act of terror” designation in the days after Obama’s Rose Garden statement. One of them is press secretary Jay Carney’s admission on September 20–a day when he called it “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack”–to “the fact that we hadn’t” used the terrorism label previously. This indicates that, despite Obama’s Rose Garden words, the administration was still resisting the idea that Benghazi was a significant event in what we used to call the War on Terror.

In the final analysis, then, Romney overreached by challenging Obama on his Rose Garden statement. But Obama was being a little cute by citing that statement as evidence that his administration had immediately identified what happened in Benghazi as something more sinister than a spontaneous protest which turned deadly. The problem here is that obsessing over the word “terror” isn’t very useful. The definition is flexible enough to give everyone some cover.

The bigger question is what the U.S. should be doing about persistent anti-American radicalism in the Muslim world. President Obama offers a muddle-through approach, one that plays Syria with extreme caution; applies carrots and sticks to unstable regimes in Egypt and Pakistan and Yemen; remorselessly deploys drones against jihadists; and errs on the side of rhetorical humility. Romney offers the vague promise of stronger “leadership,” tougher words, and more fulsome support for the Syrian rebels (though he doesn’t address the prospect that Bashar al Assad’s fall in Syria might well empower the same sort of people who murdered Chris Stevens and his compatriots). Both ought to explain these visions in more detail. The good news is that the third and last presidential debate, on Monday night, will focus on foreign policy. Obama should be pressed to explain more clearly what he thinks happened in Benghazi and why. But then the candidates should drop the semantics and move on to substance.

MORE: Clinton, Obama, Romney and the Benghazi ‘Buck’

304 comments
Bill Pearlman
Bill Pearlman

riddle me this time readers. If he called it a terrorist atack in the rose garden why did he and his minions spend the next two weeks blaming it on the video. And why did he apologize 6 times  in the UN. And why did he spend tax money to make a commercial to run in pakistan saying don't blame us.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 Because after he called it a terrorist attack in the rose garden he got a call from the CIA asking him to not use that term while they continue pursuing the perpetrators and investigating how the security breach occurred.

AlexVallas
AlexVallas

This has to be one of the most absurd issues in recent political history.  The GOP and much of the media are hung up on whether this was a pre planned or spontaneous attack.  Somehow, they are implying that one would be conducted by terrorists and the other by friendly people who somehow got together and decided to destroy the consulate.  Hello!  They are terrorist attacks -- repeat terrorist attacks-- and it doesn't matter whether they were planned or spontaneous.  The result was the same.  If people really want to get technical -- it could have been both.  The terrorist could have planned an attack and found the YouTube video to be the fuel that lit the fire. This was an extremely unfortunate incident that should not be politicized.    I speak as one who has served in the US Foreign Service in six embassies, three of which were in hostile or unfriendly countries. 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 When House Republicans called a hearing in the middle of their long

recess, you knew it would be something big, and indeed it was: They

accidentally blew the CIA’s cover.

The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing of the Oversight and

Government Reform Committee was to examine security lapses that led to

the killing in Benghazi last month of the U.S.

ambassador to Libya and

three others. But in doing so, the lawmakers reminded us why

“congressional intelligence” is an oxymoron.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/...

SmilingSmartBlonde
SmilingSmartBlonde

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.

This was a defining moment.

PBO knew the importance of letting Romney talk. He knew that Romney's biggest problem is Romney himself, or, should I say it is what Romney says that causes the problems.

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Awwww.  Poor widdle Tagg got his feelers hurt and said he'd like to take a swing at President Obama.

Firstly, Tagg, judging by your pappy, you're most likely an abject coward, and cowards are always all talk.  Secondly, if you're revved up to fight, get thee to a recruitment center, get in uniform and head to Afghanistan!  Hurry!

Ohhhh, that's right, fighting in wars is for the little people, right, Tagg?

Republicans:  hating America, 24x7.

superlogi
superlogi

Hey spawn, how many wars has Biden or Barry fought in?  For that matter, how many have you fought in?  You know the last Military Times poll done with respect to which political affiliation people who've served were a whopping 8% liberal, 13% Democrat and over 53% GOP and 50% conservative. The point is, people of your persuasion are under represented relative to the rest of us.  Don't talk with your mouth FOS.

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Hey ItsNotatax, you have an extra binky for this guy?

Oh, and your poll is unadulterated garbage.

Republicans, haters of America, and in general, cowards.  Just look at Willard.

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

Usually, the ones calling others 'cowards' are the ones who fit the description.

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

Obama is the Coward in Chief. 

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Except for when he's killing militants and Taliban in droves. He also has a very clear-cut policy when dealing with Pirates at sea.

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Hilarious.  Name the great line of military fighters in Willard's cowardly family.

Republicans:  ALWAYS the cowards.

Sorry, dude.  Need a binky, maybe?

superlogi
superlogi

I didn't get your answer as to whether or not you served since we already know your heroes didn't, one even getting five deferments, the last of which was because he had an asthma attack as a senior in high school.  And yes, I did serve in a war started by a progressive liberal.  Isn't it ironic that this same fellow sent many of us over to SE Asia to stop the spread of Marxists and now we've got one running the country?

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

He's run the country alright, ran it right into the ground.  If this were a business it would be bankrupt, sort of like Solyndra or A123.

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Obama's run the country.  Nice try, changing the subject after your failure, however.  Bonus points for that.  

Oh, and can you get a binky for superlogi, while you're at it?

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

Warren- Name one person in Obama's family that ever ran a business.  Just one will do. 

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Still waiting for your list of Romney fighters.  Just one will do.

You know, since Republicans love their wars and stuff, and like to talk tough on Iran.

Go ahead, bowl me over with the list.

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

I didn't realize Obama could use his grandfather's hero card.  Is that why he's such a wuss?

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Nice laydown, after your fail.

I can see why you're a Romney guy.

WarrenSpahn
WarrenSpahn

Of course you don't realize it.  His granddad fought in WWII.

Do you always fail so badly in arguments?  Being a wingnut, I would assume, "YES"

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

I didn't realize Obama came from such a long line of 'military fighters'. I don't see Romney bowing down to every world leader. Obama bows really, really low as he's begging for forgiveness on his apology tours.  Romney doesn't tell Russia that he'll have more room to submit to them after the elections. Romney isn't BFF's with Hugo Chavez.

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

Obama wasn't talking specifically about Benghazi when he said 'no act of terror' in the Rose Garden, that is clear.  Even left-wing CNN's Anderson Cooper agrees with that. 

In_Natures_God_We_Trust
In_Natures_God_We_Trust

President Obama's  Rose Garden Benghazi Reference Proves Conservatives Have the Reading Comprehension of Cro Magnon Man

"Get the transcript!" says Barack Skywalker.

Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks.  We mourned with the families who were lost on that day.  I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed.  And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it.  Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.  Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.  We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done.

But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers.  These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity.  They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.

Any English teacher, in America, that backs up this FAUX BSM* meme, that the President's  reference did not specifically include the Benghazi attack, should be fired.

* Bull S**t Mountain

Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL
Its_Not_A_Tax_LOL

Tell Anderson Cooper and every other left wing journo on CNN that, they will disagree with you. They agree that Obama (or his speech writer) were purposefully ambiguous by saying 'no act of terror' instead of 'this act of terror' after mentioning 9/11/01, Iraq and Afghanistan along with Benghazi.

  Ask the White House press secretary why it took him 2 weeks to agree it was a terrorist attack. Ask Obama why he kept pushing out his minions to regurgitate the 'video' excuse. 

Magik13
Magik13

THe truth is, the Republicans created the "War on Terror" for their own political advantage. They milked the "war on terror" for every last drop of political advantage they could get out of it. Then the whole dirty scheme backfired on them. 

Obama hijacked the issue and began fighting the "war on terror" much more thoughtfully and intelligently. As a result, Obama has been much much more successful than the Republicans in fighting terrorism. It was Obama that took out Osama Bib Laden. Instead of being gleeful and grateful that all True Americans that our #1 enemy was taken out and was no longer a threat to the country, the Republicans hated the fact and resented that Obama outclassed them and outshined them. 

Obama has taken out 10X the number of top Al Quaeda in 4 years than Bush and the Republicans did in 8. Obama has done so much more efficiently and economically and with much less loss of human life. 

The Republicans, due to their narcissistic nature, resent the fact that Obama has been much more successful than they at prosecuting their phony war on terror. 

fmarc
fmarc

His way of fighting used to be called "wet jobs". The main differences were that the killings were restricted to the target, and that the "contract" was supposedly impossible to track down to the president. In the drone campaign killings, hundred of collateral victims were killed, and I don't see anything that could prevent them to claim being victim of war crimes, considering that most of the killing were perpetrated  in countries we are not at war with. Our president might have a very busy legal agenda when leaving this office.

fmarc
fmarc

If Candy Crowley was working for a Republican media, and would have intervened in the debate, disturbing it and skewing it to the Republican candidate's advantage.... I already imagine the tumult, the uproar, the New York Times scandalized postures! Coup d'etat, Fascism, Cheating and other words would fly like missiles, all the networks would overheat, TV and computers would explode of indignation... It seems to me that Obama's verbal grammar is far from being accurate, but for him, no joke, no website, it would probably be racist... In 2008, As many European, I thought that voting for Obama was grand, and was a redemption after the Bush years. This sentiment was based on this (now I know) preposterous idea that electing an Afro-American as the president of the USA would "turn a page", and would allow this country to atone for its racial injustice and divisions. Well, now I am wondering if preempting his race over his records (or lack of in this case), was not a case of "soft" racism on my part, or as the marxist would refer to, a retro-racism.

Incompetence cannot be overcome by race and gender. We were shown the video where Obama had the most divisive diatribe, against the white federal state, we could have known his affiliation, his ideological allegiances... 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 What are you rambling about? People voted for Obama not because of his race but despite of it. They were screwed by the 8 years of Bush and so McCain for the out of touch war monger that he was.

fmarc
fmarc

You might need some tutors to eruct your ideas, I don't. I make my own opinions. There are things you should try in another life, like balancing arguments, nuance, doubt... When thinking, it makes the same difference between wall painting and artistic painting. Not using insults helps too to add substance. 

fmarc
fmarc

If you cannot debate politely, please avoid responding to my comments. Verbal violence, is not only proof of lack of wit, it's just violence.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

If you can't present credible facts, please don't be shocked by the response. BS talking points from Limbaugh and Hannitty will not go unchallenged.

onaturalia
onaturalia

Romney cannot lie his way into office. He is going to have to prove himself.

ahandout
ahandout

More hopey changey:  Obama takes corporate donations after promising to not take them.

Deja vu all over again.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

And Romney takes money from an Israel first nationalist and a pair of corporate criminals. And your point is what exactly?

MrObvious
MrObvious

His point is that Obama can't do what Romney does. He should simply lose the election with both hands tied behind his back because our SC together with GOP have ensured that unlimited money can be poured on our political system.

arjun
arjun

Just to be clear:   The President's speech is extracted again: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.  Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.  We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done."

You may notice that "this terrible act" in the passage is not highlighted in bold letters by Michael. But when read together with the bold, it makes clear that Mitt did not have a debate point in his favor.

It seems the President prefers to paint for war on terror secretly and smartly, while men like GWB and Romney, want the war paint on explicitly. The former approach has yielded results for the nation and so far the latter approach seems of little consequence, except on huge costs on the tax payer or voter.

ahandout
ahandout

 How about that secret war on free speech??  Did that cross your radar?

MrObvious
MrObvious

What secret war?

Where's the legislation that shows that there's a secret war on free speech? Other than the Patriot act I can't think of anything that comes close to limit free speech. In fact as we now know GOP fully support legal bribery through UC. They're under the idiotic assumption that legal entities like corporations have more important free speech rights then real people.

They also seem fine with employers scaring employees with getting fired if they vote for Obama.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 You mean jailing a man who clearly violated his parole? Thank you for reaching, try again.

ahandout
ahandout

 Mr. Obvious,  you need to mark this day on your calendar.  You are no longer a supporter of Barrack Obama.  Halleluiah.

You said:

"Groin hurting leap onto ACLU. ACLU is completely right in what they

states, but none of it means that there will be any laws of that nature.

And I certainly would never support a candidate that runs on

constricting and narrowing it. (First Amendment)"

Barrack Hussein Obama, not only signed on to this UN resolution that will limit free speech, he revived it from the dead.   Congratulations you are no longer an Obama supporter.

Saudi initiative singled out for praise

Nonetheless, the resolution adopted in New York on Monday does

contain elements that concern some free speech and religious freedom

advocates.

It calls on states “to take effective measures to ensure that public

functionaries in the conduct of their public duties do not discriminate

against an individual on the basis of religion or belief.”

Governments also are expected to make “a strong effort to counter

religious profiling, which is understood to be the invidious use of

religion as a criterion in conducting questionings, searches and other

law enforcement investigative procedures.”

“Effective measures” to counter cases of religious stereotyping and

stigmatization include education, interfaith dialogue and “training of

government officials.”

And in the worst cases, those of “incitement to imminent violence”

based on religion, the resolution calls on countries to implement

“measures to criminalize” such behavior.http://cnsnews.com/news/article/un-ad...

MrObvious
MrObvious

Sorry, but that's from a rightie websites. Given the 4 years of absolute BS about anything Obama does I'll believe it when we see actual legislation there of.

If we would believe anything a rightie says we'd be in a Stalinistic re-education camp by now.

ahandout
ahandout

Don't be a lyin' piece of chit Mr. 0. 

 You can certainly find any site that makes you happy and find the same message.  Obama, signed onto the UN resolution to limit free speech.

Sorry, not letting you out of your statement.  Bigmouth.

MrObvious
MrObvious

I'm not lying.

Where is the legislation? Show me one example of how our free speech rights have been clamped down on?

And thanks ahandhout for not letting me out of my statement. I hope you don't think by calling me childish names that what you say will matter more then if you actually provide a argument to what you state.

mhd52
mhd52

 Obama administration's story about Libya = A river of lies

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Romney potentially jeopardizes a CIA investigation in his rush to score cheap political points of American deaths. A true patriot.

ahandout
ahandout

 So, now we know the real reason behind Rice and Obama blaming the video.  It's their UN agreement.

the…administration was earlier criticized by legal scholars for

effectively endorsing anti-blasphemy legislation. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin lamented

the Administration’s support for proposals at the United Nations to

restrict ‘hate speech’ against Islam and other religions

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 Please provide sourcing for this ridiculous claim.