The last presidential debate of 2012 was supposed to be a sideshow.
Through summer and into autumn, the campaign’s script was all about the domestic economy, so this third face-to-face between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sounded like a snoozer on foreign policy.
After all, Obama, saddled with four years of high unemployment and the $1 trillion federal deficit, seemed easy to attack, as Romney waved his businessman-behemoth resume like a battle standard. Romney’s lack of experience in foreign policy might be a concern, but not a high priority.
But the script was rewritten on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, when Islamic militants stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya.
The aftermath has stung both Romney and Obama, and it has pumped up the anticipation for the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. EDT.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three staff members were killed in the attack. According to newly released State Department cables, Stevens expressed concern for months about accelerating dangers in Libya due to “growing problems with security” in Benghazi.
In the security “vacuum,” Stevens had written to his superiors, “Islamist extremists are able to attack the Red Cross with relative impunity. What we have seen are not random crimes of opportunity, but rather targeted and discriminate attacks.”
On the day he died, Stevens authored a cable saying Benghazi residents were frustrated with Libyan police and security forces that were “too weak to keep the country secure.”
The streets outside the consular compound in Benghazi were quiet at 8:30 p.m. as Stevens wrapped up his duties for the day. But little more than an hour later, according to the Associated Press, security agents heard “loud noises, gunfire and explosions near the front gate. A barracks at the entrance housing the local militiamen [was] burnt down. Agents viewing cameras [saw] a large group of armed men flowing into the compound.” An alarm sounded and the deadly assault was under way.
The attack became a political issue almost immediately, indeed, even before much was known about it.
Also on Sept. 11, protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo. That embassy’s staff blamed the unrest on an allegedly anti-Islam film produced by a California man, Mark Basseley Youssef. Portions of that film were available worldwide on YouTube. In a statement, issued literally as mobs were gathering outside the Cairo embassy, staff members decried the filmmaker for “hurt[ing] the religious feelings of Muslims.”
To Romney, that statement was tantamount to “sympathize[ing] with those who waged the attacks.” He issued a statement calling the Obama administration “disgraceful.”
Obama and his supporters condemned Romney’s commentary as unpresidential. Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” Obama said. Romney’s statement looked especially bad in having been issued before the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi was known.
But while the first political skirmish went to Obama, the next series of public pronouncements wounded him. In his first public statement on the Benghazi attack, Obama did speak of “acts of terror.” However, for the next two weeks, he and his spokespersons fixated on characterizing the attack as a spontaneous response to Youssef’s film.
On “Meet the Press” on Sept. 16, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice called the attack “almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.” Rice explained the fact that the demonstrators arrived with “heavy weapons” by saying that such weapons “unfortunately, are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya.”
Two days later, when Obama was a guest on David Letterman’s CBS show, he said extremists and terrorists used the Youssef film as “an excuse to attack [a] variety of our embassies, including the one – the consulate in Libya.”
Republicans and conservative media outlets have accused Obama of a cover-up of Al-Qaeda’s role. Frequent Obama critic Investors Business Daily demanded in an editorial that the moderator of the foreign-policy debate, Bob Schieffer of CBS, probe Obama about Benghazi. If the CIA station chief in Libya “found terrorist links within 24 hours of the Benghazi attack and told Washington,” the editorial asked, why did the administration continue for several weeks to claim the attack grew out of a spontaneous protest?
However, by the last week of September, the White House was no longer pushing the idea that the attack was spontaneous. On Sept. 28, a spokesman for James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, released a statement saying, “As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.” On Oct. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took responsibility for the security flaws that the terrorist attackers exploited.
In the town hall debate Oct. 16, Romney attempted to profit politically from the furor by accusing Obama of downplaying the true nature of the Benghazi attack for two weeks.
Romney’s gambit backfired when moderator Candy Crowley of CNN backed up Obama’s claim that he first called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” in a statement on Sept. 12.
Romney supporters were livid. Writer Jim Geraghty of the right-wing National Review said, “Considering how many conservatives thought Libya could be a huge issue in [the] campaign’s final weeks, Romney’s handling is deeply disappointing.”
Another conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post, pointed out that Romney has another opportunity to press his case. “Unfortunately for Obama, there is one more debate – [on Monday], entirely on foreign policy. The burning issue will be Libya and the scandalous parade of fictions told by this administration to explain away the debacle,” Krauthammer wrote.
Michael Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy center based in Washington, and a member of the CIA External Advisory Board, said in an essay posted Oct. 19 on CNN’s website that Obama’s critics should “lay off” the administration’s responses to Benghazi. Hanlon agrees the initial White House view was mistaken.
“But such mistakes will inevitably sometimes happen in a dangerous world where Americans in and out of uniform serve bravely and with full awareness of the dangers before them. We must not turn them into political tempests,” Hanlon said. “To go to a zero-defect and zero-mistake mentality where we only place diplomats within huge fortified compounds, or only deploy them to the field when accompanied by large contingents of armed guards … would not serve American interests.”