Romney’s Libya problem
The Kansas City Star
Mitt Romney seems determined to make up for his first Libya error. Unfortunately, in last night’s presidential debate, he goofed again trying to undo the damage of the first mistake.
Let’s recap. Before the murder of the four Americans in Libya, the Cairo embassy issued a statement critical of those who make religiously offensive comments. The statement was made in response to the now infamous internet video that was offensive to Muslims. The embassy in Cairo was stormed by protesters a few hours later, though it is possible protesters were gathering sooner.
Then still later the attack in Benghazi occurred, and Romney quickly criticized the Obama administration for the embassy “apologizing” to the attackers for offending them, though it turned out that the “apology” actually preceded the incident. The statement was issued by a staffer at the embassy and had not been approved the the ambassador.
(Here is a timeline of events from Politifact: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2012/sep/12/romney-says-us-embassy-statement-was-apology-was-i/
The day after the Benghazi attack, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden and condemned the attacks, and he did briefly mention that “acts of terror” would not weaken American resolve, etc. etc. But at that time, the administration did seem to be attributing the attack to the anger produced by the internet video.
That position seemed implausible to me because the attackers obviously had high powered weapons that wouldn’t have been available to spontaneous rioters, but the internet video had sparked protests around the Muslim world, so many causes were possibilities.
The Obama administration has now acknowledged that the Benghazi attack was probably not a result of the internet video but was a planned attack. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say there is an ongoing investigation into what happened.
In stepped Mr. Romney in last night’s debate, intent on showing that the president apologizes for America and our values and is an incompetent who is refusing to admit that the Benghazi attack was a terrorist attack, (as if anybody would be surprised that there are still terrorists in the world.) But the possibility, perhaps the probability, is that the attacks were planned not by international terrorists but by political groups within Libya seeking power. Time will tell.
So in the debate last night the president pointed out that he referred to acts of terror in his Rose Garden speech. Romney challenged the president, wanting to get the president’s statement firmly on the record. Romney pressed Obama, and Obama declined to answer further. “Proceed, Governor” he said slyly, allowing Mr. Romney to dig a deeper hole for himself.
Romney thought the president had lied and that he could prove it. Romney said, “ I want to make sure we get that for the record (the president’s assertion that he spoke of acts of terror) because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
Moderator Candy Crowley then said that the president did say what he said he’d said in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack. Ouch. She also acknowledged that it did take two weeks for the president to say more clearly that the attack was planned and not the result of the internet video. But he had, in fact, made reference to “acts of terror.”
OK, so Crowley broke the debate rules by fact-checking on the fly, but so did both of the candidates by cross-examining each other. But Romney made the crucial mistake: Don’t ask a question you’re not certain you have the answer for. Romney thought he had a gotcha moment, but the gotcha was on him.
Spin doctors now try to say that Obama didn’t specifically refer to the murders in Benghazi as an act of terror but simply referred generally to “acts of terror.” A bit too nuanced, I think.
Romney undermined his credibility badly. It is arguable that the Cairo embassy statement was a kind of apology. And it is arguable that the Obama administration didn’t provide enough security to the Benghazi compound and didn’t respond to requests for more security.
But it’s hard to claim that the Cairo embassy statement, which occurred before the Benghazi attack, was an apology issued after the attack. And the simple fact is that Obama did referr to acts of terror in his Rose Garden speech, and it is not credible to say that this reference was completely irrelevant to the purpose and thrust of his speech.
I suspect that most people figure that any Americans in the middle east or Africa are more or less exposed to danger that comes with the territory, so they don’t blame the Obama administration for what happened. And most people probably don’t care all that much that Romney didn’t listen to the president’s Rose Garden speech.
But if people are paying any attention, they surely have to wonder about the competence of a presidential candidate who makes two important factual errors in political attacks about an event that shouldn’t be politicized in the first place.
update on Oct 18: I listened to the excerpt of the Rose Garden speech last night, and it sounded to me like the president said “act” not “acts” of terror. Minor point, but he did seem to be talking specifically about the Benghazi attack as an “act” (singular) of terror.