President Obama’s lie at the debate--that he made an early call the Benghazi attack was terror-- was petty and ludicrous.
It was petty because, as a semantic dispute, it grasped brief advantage that necessarily had to yield to inevitable fact-checking. It was ludicrous because, as a matter of history, it pretended two weeks of vehement, contradictory spin from the administration never happened.
When Mitt Romney challenged Obama on his failure to admit the Benghazi massacre was terrorism, the president threw down a startling gauntlet: He had indeed called the attack an act of terror the very next morning.
Disbelieving, Romney jumped to pin the president down. Instead, Candy Crowley immoderately declared--by virtue of the authority vested in her by no one--the president was right. He had called it an act of terror.
But it was wrong. Obama lied, Crowley’s credibility died.
Roll the tape: Before jetting to his infamous Las Vegas fundraiser the day after the massacre, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden. Early in the brief remarks, he said America condemns “this outrageous and shocking attack.”
In the next paragraph, he planted the seed of the coming distraction: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” It was a dissonant injection into solemn words offered to memorialize fallen Americans.
Four paragraphs later, the president described the attacks of September 11, 2001. Only then did he observe: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation…” Any connection between the late reference to terror and the Benghazi attack was ambiguous at best.
This was a prepared address about a major international event. It would receive layers of review and exquisite scrutiny from security officials and the president’s political people. If he did not plainly declare the attack a terrorist act, then the omission was deliberate. The text carefully sidestepped that definitive statement even though it would have been more natural and fluid to simply apply the terror label at the outset.
People with reasonable smarts, including network anchors, grasp the difference between mentioning terror and concretely calling a specific event terrorism. Anyone with a modicum of professional skepticism might wonder if someone was cynically keeping options open.
So push came to shove in Long Island. The candidates were crouched to grapple over this very question. But upon the president’s demand--“Transcript! Stat!”--Crowley abandoned her role as moderator and embraced her inner participant. She affirmed Obama’s deception and deflected Romney’s accurate attack.
Painfully, the most powerful man in the world was reduced to begging further credibility from a cable talking head. He petitioned: “Could you say that a little louder?” Now that’s shrinkage: “Please, ma’am, a little more help?”
But semantic parsing is beside the point. What makes the lie ludicrous is the president’s own furious spin. For two weeks his administration adamantly argued, contrary to reason, the assault was a spontaneous angry movie review that spun out of control, not a carefully planned, strategic attack on American interests.
That the attackers used rocket propelled grenades in their “spontaneous” grief did not embarrass the administration. That the attackers shrewdly divided between a main assault force to breach the consulate, and a secondary force to pursue the fleeing staff, did not deter the administration. That the attackers possessed inside information about the “safe” location of the ambassador did not give the administration pause.
The roster of shame includes US ambassador Susan Rice, who peddled the implausible tale on five Sunday news shows, Press Secretary Jay Carney, who doggedly held the line at White House briefings, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who, with President Obama appeared in a commercial funded by US tax dollars in Egypt and Libya condemning the internet film.
The president himself perpetrated his deceptive statecraft in such important venues as Letterman, The View, and the United Nations General Assembly.
Team Obama peddled the tale of spontaneous protest because the truth was worse: Obama hasn’t changed the hard fact that America is hated in those lands; that he has done much that enabled the extremists who mean us harm; that he inadequately protected American personnel from known threats. A harmful storyline like that needed to be suppressed at least past November.
But facts that the president knew almost immediately, or even prior, began to trickle out, eroding the ground under his deception: There had been no protest at all in Benghazi. Al Qaeda was active in Libya. England had removed its diplomatic personnel for that reason.
There had been several threats and attacks aimed at the consulate and ambassador. He feared for his life. He requested additional security. The assault was sophisticated, well executed, and probably aimed at seizing intelligence about American activity in the area. State Department and almost certainly White House staffers watched the attack in real time from posted video monitors.
The truth now in plain sight underscores the president’s failures of policy and leadership. Until Benghazi, he could boast of a hopeful Arab Spring, winds of reform in the Middle East, advancing peace, and al Qaeda “on the road to defeat.” Those happy talking points lie in blackened shards.
The Middle East and Muslim world are more dangerously hostile to America now than four years ago. The president’s contrite outreach did not win good will, it provoked contempt. His intervention in Egypt and unlawful aggression in Libya did not aid modernizing, civilizing elements; they empowered extreme, violent factions with destructive aims at America and oppressive designs on their own people.
Al Qaeda is not on the run, it’s spreading like a virus. The president’s repeated spiking of the football over killing bin Laden and heavy use of drone attacks are driving major blowback, a word that all but disappeared from media coverage when George Bush left Washington.
The administration almost got away with floating its Arabian mirage past the election. Then, it clung briefly and grimly to its tale of religious protest, until that, too, was untenable.
For the president, September 11, 2012 was a bump in the road not even a protective moderator can smooth over.