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.