Shadow Government

Benghazi and why words matter

Last night's presidential debate was largely devoted to domestic and economic policy, reflecting the primary concerns of voters during this election season. Yet one of the few times that foreign policy came up has also generated a considerable amount of post-debate commentary -- the exchange between President Obama and Governor Romney over last month's Benghazi consulate attack. The complexities of the case came out when debate moderator Candy Crowley's clumsy effort to officiate actually made things worse, and was widely seen as an unfair intervention against Romney -- as Crowley now admits.

Even more notable, today's purported effort by the New York Times at "Clearing the Record on Benghazi" seems to be an unfortunate case of either sloppiness or partisan distortion in the guise of fact-checking. Reporter Scott Shane goes to great lengths to absolve President Obama of mischaracterizing the Benghazi consulate attack on September 11. Specifically, Shane says that "Mr. Obama applied the "terror" label to the attack in his first public statement on the events in Benghazi" and "the next day, Sept. 13, in a campaign appearance in Las Vegas, he used similar language." The article then tries to excuse the fact that the Obama administration refused to characterize the Benghazi atrocities as an organized attack by a terrorist group with the head-scratching assertion that "the 'act of terror' references attracted relatively little notice at the time, and later they appeared to have been forgotten even by some administration officials."

As anyone who has worked in either government or the media knows, senior administration officials use their public words carefully, deliberately, and in a coordinated manner -- they do not simply "forget" how to describe a major event in which four American officials were killed.

The fact that President Obama used the word "terror" is beside the point, since even a spontaneous mob lynching (the White House's preferred characterization at the time) is an "act of terror." Moreover, as anyone who has read the White House transcript can immediately tell, Obama used the word "terror" in reference to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Curiously Shane's article omits this context and fails to link to the transcript.

Rather, the core question from Benghazi is whether it was a pre-meditated attack by an organized terrorist group, or spontaneous mob violence in response to the anti-Muhammed video. The available evidence overwhelmingly substantiates that it was the former, yet for over a week after the attack the Obama administration systematically insisted that it was the latter.

This line was most evident in U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's talking points, delivered verbatim at the behest of the White House on multiple news shows. Those talking points were explicitly designed to do two things: 1) knock back the "this was a terrorist attack" allegation and 2) advance the White House's preferred angle that the assault on the consulate was a spontaneous mob response to the offensive video. This deliberate messaging campaign achieved both goals temporarily, until more evidence began to surface publicly about both the nature of the attack and the early reporting on it by the American intelligence community.

Only after this campaign crumbled did the Obama administration decide to pivot awkwardly to the new angle that President Obama himself pushed last night -- creating the misleading impression that the White House had never peddled the "this wasn't a pre-meditated terrorist attack" line in the first place.

Why does this even matter? Because it is not a trivial quibble over words but rather a serious debate over some of the Obama administration's core national security doctrines and claims of success. To Shane's credit, he mentions this at the end of his article. Specifically, the White House has for months been boasting that Al Qaeda is near-defeat, and has been portraying the 2011 Libya intervention as an unqualified success. These are in part political claims that feature in the Obama re-election campaign, but they are also policy commitments that guide how the administration acts -- including mid-level State Department officials who deny requests for increased security in Libya.

The fact that an Islamist terrorist group with links to al Qaeda and operating in Libya could stage such a destructive attack on American property and personnel severely undercuts both of those White House claims. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers may not be "on its heels" after all (as even the White House might now be acknowledging), and "leading from behind" coupled with anemic post-conflict stabilization efforts may not have led to a stable, peaceful Libya. At a minimum, those are legitimate topics for debate.  

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Shadow Government

What do veteran endorsements of presidential candidates accomplish?

A new report that I have co-authored with James Golby and Kyle Dropp was released yesterday by the Center for a New American Security. The study, titled Military Campaigns: Veterans' Endorsements and Presidential Elections, can be found here. The New York Times also reports on the study.

We tested whether telling voters that "most members of the military and veterans" support one candidate or the other had an impact on voter's preferences for President Obama or Governor Romney. We found that in the aggregate, such endorsements did not seem to move vote choice by a statistically significant amount, but that they did have a statistically significant effect on voters who claimed to be independents and especially on independents who claimed not to follow foreign policy very closely.

President Obama received a statistically significant bump in support from those voters who were told of an endorsement, whereas Governor Romney did not. We believe that is because a military/veteran endorsement of Obama would be surprising, given public perceptions of the military as a conservative organization and the historical advantage Republicans have had on national security.

We go on to argue, however, that such endorsements are not good for civil-military relations because they involve the military in partisan politics. Of course, retired military may exercise their first amendment rights just as any other citizen could. But we argue:

"Retired senior officers may think they are drawing fine distinctions between the formal institution of active-duty military and their own views as retired citizens. But the truth is that no one, especially not the campaign team, is very interested in their views as private citizens. Rather, it is their symbolic role -- their role as spokespeople for the military -- that gives their endorsements significance."

 

We worry that the cycle of high-profile endorsements could in the long run help erode public trust in the military as a non-partisan institution and we find some suggestive evidence that such worries are reasonable.

The reactions to our report have been interesting. One person wrote complaining that our descriptive background section focused on the high-profile endorsements, such as Admiral John Nathman's cameo at the 2012 Democratic National Convention or General Tommy Franks' cameo at the 2004 Republican National Convention, but then our survey prompt was more general: "most members of the military and veterans."

We followed this research design for several reasons. First, as we explain in our study, campaigns prize high-profile endorsements because they symbolize something larger than simply a single citizen. That is why they tend to cluster them and announce them as a group (think Admiral Crowe standing in front of all those retired generals and admirals endorsing Clinton in 1992). The individual endorsements are meant to symbolize the endorsement of the larger institution. Our survey prompt captures that idea.

Second, as a practical matter, we had to design and conduct the survey during a campaign season but in advance of when the campaigns had publicized the lists of their endorsements. It would have contaminated the study to create false names or false endorsements.

One person also wondered why we didn't ask the question directly: "If a candidate is endorsed by a retired general, would you be more or less likely to vote for that candidate solely because that?" However, the whole point of survey experiments is to capture latent effects whether or not the respondent is aware of them. Social scientists have developed these tools because asking direct questions distorts or obscures the underlying phenomena they are seeking to study.

Another person wrote to complain that we had misidentified Jason Dempsey, author of Our Army, as an "Obama supporter." It was a minor point, but I am inclined to think the critic was right. Jason wrote a piece for Huffington Post analyzing a different poll and concluded that younger military personnel were not as Republican leaning as older cohorts. Several Obama supporters pointed us to that article (and others like it) as we were doing our research and argued to us that Obama had a decisive advantage among younger military and veterans, but we did not find similar results in our own survey, which is why we wrote what we did. However, since Dempsey has gone to some pains not to be identified with one candidate or another - and, indeed, has written persuasively of the danger of the military developing a partisan identity -- we should not have referenced him as an Obama supporter even though Obama supporters relied on his analysis to make their case to us.

We are grateful so many people are taking the study seriously and look forward to a lively debate. And, as is always the case in academic research of this sort, we end with a call for more funding for more research to follow all of the interesting lines of inquiry that commenters raise!

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