The most dramatic moment of last night’s debate came when Mitt Romney insisted that President Obama had not immediately called the deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi an act of terror. Obama just as boldly insisted that he had, and for a moment it appeared as if the two men were about to bet $10,000, if not the presidency itself, on the outcome of their disagreement.
The moment passed quickly when moderator Candy Crowley stepped in to rule Obama correct and Romney incorrect, a step that conservatives are condemning harshly this morning as evidence of liberal bias.
Let’s unpack this whole piece of baggage, starting from the beginning:
1.) The premise of the entire debate is false, because the attack on our consulate in Benghazi was not an act of terror. An act of terror, by definition, targets the civilian population and attempts to inflict terror on that population. This was a military operation/assassination, targeted not at civilians but at the top American presence in Libya and, indirectly, at the armed guards who protected that presence. It was an attack on the United States and its interests.
Calling it an act of terror confuses the issue. However, we prefer that confusion. That confusion allows us to place this attack safely within our preferred War on Terror narrative and casts America as the innocent victim of nefarious, brutal men rather than as a major player contending for some share of power and influence in Libya, which is what we are.
September 11 was an act of terror. The truck bombing that killed 241 Marines in their barracks in Lebanon in 1983 was not an act of terror. Attacks on our forces in Afghanistan are not acts of terror. And neither was this.
2.) The Obama administration, for reasons that remain unclear, balked at calling it either an act of terror or a direct military operation. They initially preferred a third category, describing it as a mass protest that got out of hand. And while that characterization may have reflected initial and incorrect intelligence about the attack, they clung to that characterization long after it had become clear that it was false.
I have no idea why they did that. Maybe the facts changed more quickly than a sluggish bureaucracy was able to change its story. Maybe they were reluctant to admit to Libyans and the world that the facility targeted in the attack also served as a CIA outpost. The Republicans argue that the administration was attempting to hide its own security failing, but frankly that makes no sense either. The basic security arrangements that were needed to protect the Benghazi consulate from direct military attack would also have helped to protect it from an angry, unruly mob. Under either story line, those arrangements failed.
In fact, protecting that facility and its occupants from an attack of this sort — a coordinated, concerted assault by numerous well-armed fighters — would require security levels well beyond those needed to fend off a mob. So again, I am mystified as to why the administration was so slow to alter its story.
One other note: A lot has been made of the fact that the attack came on the anniversary of Sept. 11. I don’t doubt that the date made the operation more attractive to attackers. However, if they had gotten a shot at Ambassador Chris Stevens on Sept. 12 or Oct. 12, I suspect they would have taken it. He was that important to U.S. efforts to influence Libya’s future.
3.) If you nonetheless buy the argument that it was important to mislabel this an act of terror, then Romney and his fellow Republicans have a small point in claiming that the president and the Obama administration failed to do so.
The Obama administration likewise has a small point that he did do so.
Here’s what the president had to say in the Rose Garden the day after the attacks, in context:
“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.”
As you can see, Obama did refer to the violence in Libya as acts of terror, so the Democrats are right. But he did so briefly and indirectly, and for days afterward his administration inexplicably continued to try to sell the mob-violence narrative, so the Republicans are right as well. It is, in the end, an open question, which means that Crowley was probably wrong to interject herself on it so definitively.
4.) None of this matters much, or should matter much. Stevens is still dead. Libya is still fractious. The United States still faces years if not decades of difficult work in the Middle East. The Arab world remains convulsive as it attempts to achieve many centuries of modernization in a matter of mere decades. The fact that the two campaigns are squabbling so bitterly over such relatively small distinctions suggests just how constrained our foreign policy options really are at this point. Neither side has a major point to make, so they focus on minor ones.
Despite his aggressive talk and the neo-con Hall of Fame that he has gathered to advise him, for example, Romney cannot identify a single policy step that he would have taken differently in the Middle East, Iraq or Afghanistan. This supposed “controversy”, along with worn-out phrases such as “apology tour” and “leading from behind,” is designed to mask that reality and make small things appear large.
We have more important things to talk about.
– Jay Bookman