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.


National Security

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.