Unpacking Tuesday Night’s Libya ‘Moment’

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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?

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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.

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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.

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