Between a Rock and a Libyan Hard Place

Last night’s presidential debate proved a fairly even match, which means those who want Mitt Romney to win next month are probably inclined to think he won the debate, and those who support President Obama are probably confident that he won. Even if undecided voters are still left undecided, the boost in confidence among the President’s supporters—up from a very low low—probably makes the immediate outcome a slight positive for the Obama camp.

The two most memorable moments of the debate, according to my unscientific survey of one, came 1) during the candidates’ confrontation over oil and gas permits and 2) during Mitt Romney’s attack on the Obama administration’s handling of the Libyan terrorist attacks.

The first will be remembered as titanic struggle of wills between the challenger, Mitt Romney, and the President of the United States. In those moments of intense, almost physical disagreement, the two men seemed evenly matched. Anyone who has watched the first two debates is almost certainly convinced that Mitt Romney is a man well-suited and competent, personally and temperamentally, to the office of President of the United States. That’s a net win for Romney. (It doesn’t help the President that the he was substantively wrong on the matter at hand — his administration has cut the number of drilling permits issued by roughly half.)

The second memorable moment came with Romney’s observation that, when terrorists attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed our ambassador, President Obama gave a speech in the White House Rose Garden in which he blamed the Libyan affair on a YouTube video, rather than on an act of terror, and then flew to Vegas for a fundraiser.

The President countered immediately, insisting that he did call the attack an “act of terror” in his Rose Garden speech. Debate moderator, Candy Crowley, stepped in to reinforce the President’s claim. The audience reacted audibly, presumably in approval of Crowley’s impromptu fact-check. The moment was widely viewed as an escape for the President on a very tough point and as a swing-and-miss by Romney who ended up looking like he was bending facts to score political points on an issue of national security.

A quick look at the transcript of the President’s Rose Garden remarks from September 12, 2012 show that President did in fact use the words “act of terror.” The context in which that phrase was used suggests that, if the President was indeed referring to the Libyan attacks as the work of terrorists, he was doing so in an intentionally indirect and plausibly deniable way. Nevertheless, Romney’s failure to pin the President on the Libya issue was itself a victory for the President. Unfortunately for the President, it may well turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Why? Because, in order to score that debate point, the President professed – indeed, insisted — that he believed the Benghazi attack to be a terrorist attack from day one; believed it so strongly that he said so publicly in his Rose Garden address on September 12, 2012.

Of course if that’s the case, if we are to read the Rose Garden remarks the way the President insists we must, then President Obama is going to have explain his administration’s convoluted, misleading, and ultimately inadequate response to a terrorist attack against American lives and interests.

Here are just a few of the hard questions he must now answer:

If he knew the attacks were the work of terrorists on September 12 in the Rose Garden, why did the President and his “team” continue to mislead the American public by calling the attacks “protests” against an “offensive video” for more than two full weeks afterward?

Why, if the President knew these attacks were the work of terrorists, did go on The View to say something different?

When asked in an interview with Univision about the attack more than a week after it occurred, why did the President continue to blame the “protests” and on a YouTube video and then go to great lengths to distance his administration from that video?

Photo: It was the intelligence community!

If the President knew the attacks were the work of terrorists from day one, why was Vice President Biden claiming otherwise three weeks after the attack when he insisted at the VP Debate that the “intelligence community” was pointing to protests, not terrorist attacks?

If the President knew the attacks were the work of terrorists from day one, why did the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, go on a press tour five days after the attacks to insist that this was a protest, “a response to a hateful and offensive video,” “a spontaneous reaction to a video”? And when asked directly if it was an act of terror, why did Ambassador Rice call the attack “a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video”?

If the President knew this was an act of terror from day one, why did he go before the United Nations himself, two weeks after the attack, and blame a YouTube video six times without once uttering the word terror or terrorist in reference to Libya or the murder of our ambassador?

If the President knew the attacks were the work of terrorists from day one, why did White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, refuse to admit as much for more than two weeks?

If the President knew that terrorists had attacked our consulate and killed our ambassador, was a press-conference en route to a Las Vegas fundraiser a remotely appropriate response?

And of course, if the President is responsible for his team, why is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking the blame?

The President seemed very proud of the point he scored in last night’s debate. He wants credit for calling the Benghazi attack an act of terror from day one. The question is, having definitively undermined every different story his administration has told in the last month, will he also take “credit” for his administration’s coordinated campaign of disinformation and half-truths?

With President Obama already swimming against the steady stream of his own promises unkept—unemployment won’t go above 8%, the deficit will be cut in half, immigration reform in the first term, if you like your health insurance you can keep it—now is not a good time to explain why his administration spent weeks talking about a YouTube video when they knew what really happened was that Americans had been killed in a terrorist attack.

Needless to say, I expect next week’s debate on foreign policy will be very interesting.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.


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