Shadow Government

Obama's spin on Benghazi was not only predictable, it was predicted

In his second debate with Governor Romney, President Obama tried to convey the idea that his administration had treated the raid on the Benghazi consulate as if it were terrorism from the start. This was a hard sell to anyone who listened to the administration's messaging on Libya over the past month, but many Obama supporters seem inclined to buy it.

I don't buy it, but I am proud to say that I predicted it, several weeks ago.  

Here is how I sketched out the evolution of the Obama administration's actual messaging, and the rationale behind it. I think it stands up pretty well (unlike most other things you write, I hear the pseudonymous trolls telling me) some two-plus weeks later:

"Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:

Initial reports were confusing (initial reports are always confusing) and left open myriad possibilities, ranging from the fairly benign (Youtube-inspired hooligans got out of control) to the most malignant (Zawahiri exacted his revenge).

Romney's initial messaging on the 9/11 anniversary attacks went over poorly and the media outrage, partly real and partly manufactured, eclipsed coverage of the underlying attacks.

The Obama team did everything they could to keep the media focus on Romney's stumbles. Partly this involved tut-tutting about what Romney said, but mostly this required not feeding an alternate storyline that indicated the attacks might have been linked to a resurgent Al Qaeda. They could accomplish the latter simply by repeating what was known -- there was a lot of Youtube-inspired hooliganism -- and keeping quiet about anything that might simply be suspected, even as those suspicions grow stronger and stronger.

The Obama team also responded in typical campaign mode: They protected the candidate and did not say anything that would raise doubts about Obama's foreign policy and national security prowess until the facts accumulated to the point where some concession was necessary. At that point, they conceded the minimum and insisted on waiting until the outcome of a (hopefully lengthy) investigation that (again hopefully) will not report out until well past election day.

The Obama team was bolstered in steps 3 and 4 by one further factor: wishful thinking. As David Ignatius spells out so clearly: "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world." In the language of political science, the Obama team had a strong motivated bias that colored the way they interpreted ambiguous data. They were receptive to information that reinforced what they wanted to believe and viewed with suspicion and skepticism information that challenged this view.

Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:

Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.

Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.

Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks."

Obama got to the "eventual message" in the town hall debate, and then built a firewall around it with self-righteous outrage at the suggestion he would ever play politics with national security. I think he is there to stay. Unless the moderator challenges him, I would be surprised if Obama  provided a more candid response at the upcoming foreign policy debate.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The president doth protest too much

Shakespeare's Hamlet features a self-absorbed protagonist who confuses oratory for action and hesitates to shoulder his responsibility. Despite the obvious similarities to the protagonist of the Obama administration, the president and his campaign have engaged in a fresh, unexpected casting of the current performance: one in which the president is not Hamlet, but Ophelia. An administration that set a new and debased standard for politicizing national security is protesting against the politicizing of national security.

The White House is clearly feeling heat over their handling of the attack on our consulate in Libya. When challenged about it in the second debate, President Obama scolded Governor Romney that "you don't turn national security into a political issue." This was clearly a rehearsed rather than a spontaneous response, since Vice President Biden reiterated the charge yesterday, saying "it became so clear to the American people how Governor Romney and the campaign continue to try to politicize a tragedy." This would be the same Joe Biden that during his debate blamed both the intelligence community and the State Department of not doing their jobs in order to shield the White House from blame.

I share Peggy Noonan's view that the Romney campaign was too quick to criticize the administration when the attack in Libya occurred; it did feel like a moment for grieving the dead Americans, and it would have been graceful (and politically expedient, given the efforts to paint Romney as unfeeling) to have held off a day or two before prosecuting the administration's national security failings.

But the Romney campaign is not wrong to press the issue now. The White House made a choice to connect what occurred in Libya with protests elsewhere in the Middle East rather than connect it to increasing jihadist activity in Libya. The argument that al Qaeda is on the ropes and the tide of war is receding is much less persuasive when al Qaeda affiliates are attacking American consulates and killing American diplomats in friendly countries. Osama bin Laden being dead may turn out to be less significant than the White House has been claiming. The Obama administration persisted in attributing the attack in Benghazi to an anti-Muslim video long after evidence had called that explanation into doubt, which increases suspicion they made a politically expedient choice.

Moreover, this is the same administration that sent its national security advisor to Afghanistan to tell the commanders not to ask for more Marines. It is the same administration that set a politically-driven timeline for withdrawing surge forces from Afghanistan. It is the same administration that complained to journalists that the military was trying to "box the president in" during the Afghanistan review -- a very serious charge against the professionalism of our military. It is the same administration that excoriated its predecessor for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan while it declined to provide the military either the troops or the time they said would be needed to win the war. It is the same administration that claims this president is uniquely courageous to have approved the raid on Osama bin Laden. It is the same administration that leaked highly classified information to try and portray the president as a decisive commander in chief. It is the same administration that is using the Joint Chiefs of Staff as political pawns by insisting they want no more money or weapons -- and banking on their professionalism not to call their commander in chief a liar. It is the same administration that has threatened to veto any reduction in the sequestration defense cuts -- cuts that Secretary Panetta and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said will be devastating to our military power.

President Obama's sanctimonious protestations that his opponent is politicizing national security is a marvelous acting job -- that he can even get the words out with a straight face is a tribute to either thespian excellence or self-delusion. It's almost funny to watch the political actor that has done the most to politicize national security solemnly intoning against doing so. But Hamlet is a tragedy, not a comedy; and the president attempting to deflect criticism of his choices about the attacks in Libya by cloaking himself in righteousness is way beyond the pale.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages