The Corner

The Real Question on Libya

“Taking the responsibility” in Washington has long been a way of avoiding the blame. But in the case of Monday’s statement by Secretary Clinton, it was a case of changing the topic — toward the security breach (where the blame is uncertain and diffuse as yet) and away from the cover-up (where the White House is guilty of repeating a pack of lies from Ambassador Susan Rice’s television appearances right up to and including Vice President Joe Biden’s debate with Paul Ryan).

That’s how I began my pre-debate posting on Tuesday. I’m opening this post with it because I kind of like the opening sentence, but also to warn that critics of the president on Benghazi seem to be making a very similar mistake in the debate aftermath. Mitt Romney spoiled a good presentation of the above case, and he was helped by Candy Crowley to lose the Benghazi exchange, when he made the technical mistake of saying that President Obama had not called the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans “terrorism” for ten days afterwards. As we all know, Obama had used the term “acts of terror” in his immediate Rose Garden response but in a way that seemed to be a general observation rather than a specific reference to the murders.

Much of the energy of critics since then has focused on proving that it was a general observation. This is a mug’s game. It’s blood under the bridge. It’s probably correct, but there’s no way of proving that it’s correct. And it looks to some voters as if it’s a poor loser’s attempt to recover ground lost to the president and Ms. Crowley in the debate.

The sensible and more effective response was outlined immediately after the debate on television by Brit Hume (and by me shouting at the television even before Brit, but I can’t prove that). Romney should have said something like: “Well, if you think that the Benghazi murders were organized acts of terrorism, Mr. President, why did your ambassador to the UN say on four television programs that they began as riots against a YouTube video and then got out of hand? Why did you yourself mention the video no fewer than six times in the United Nations? Why did you and your Secretary of State make a video addressed to the Islamic world apologizing for the video and arguing that it should not be used as an excuse for violence against the Americans and the United States?”

If the Benghazi attack was an organized act of terrorism by a terrorist group, then all these official assurances by administration spokesmen from the president down were false. If the president knew that it was a terrorist act, then the assurances were worse than false — they were deliberately false, there’s a word for that, it’s on the tip of my tongue . . . And if they were deliberately false, then there had to be a strong motive underlying them. My suspicion — it can be no more than that — is that if the Benghazi assault was indeed a terrorist attack, as everyone now agrees, then it was strong evidence that Obama’s foreign policy towards the Islamic world and towards Islamist terrorism had not succeeded. In other words, it embarrassingly undermined what the Obama campaign hoped would be one of its strongest arguments against Romney.

None of these arguments rest upon whether the president called Benghazi terrorism in the Rose Garden. In fact, if Obama did say that, it makes the case against him even harsher. It means that he was dishonest rather than merely uninformed (though neither is desirable in a U.S. president).

And all of this is quite as much on the record as Nixon’s suicidal comments on the Watergate tapes.       

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