A tipping point in the ongoing efforts by the Obama administration to downplay the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya may have been reached this weekend. After weeks of placidly regurgitating the White House spin on the Libya attack, the headlines on the front page of the New York Times showed that even the leading liberal cheerleader for the president understood the game was over: “Shifting Reports on Libya Killings May Cost Obama; An Opening for Romney; Intelligence Aides Say Attack on Compound Was ‘Organized.’”
That sums the situation up nicely, but the Times has it slightly wrong about the “Opening for Romney” it references. A proper understanding of what we have learned in the last 18 days is not that Mitt Romney’s campaign may have been given an opportunity to exploit the president’s shortcomings, but that the poor conduct of the administration in the aftermath of the Libya attack may have been motivated by their cynical political efforts to cover up a disaster of their own making. The refusal to talk about terror comes from a strategy in which the president’s re-election rests in part on promoting the idea that Obama won the war on al-Qaeda the day Osama bin Laden died. It isn’t Romney who has been playing politics on Libya but the president and his handlers.
On Friday, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, issued a statement saying that American intelligence agencies have “revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
But after two weeks of confusion and misinformation from Washington following the attack that came on the 9/11 anniversary, this belated clarity does not undo the damage done by the often-contradictory attempts by the administration to evade responsibility for the intelligence failure that resulted in the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Nor does it erase the clear impression that the White House and various leading officials such as Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have been either deceiving the nation or themselves about what is going on in the Middle East. Clapper’s statement came on the same day that the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported that while White House mouthpiece Jay Carney and Rice were insisting that the attacks were merely a case of film criticism that got out of hand, U.S intelligence was intercepting messages from the group that pulled off the Libya attack bragging about the deed to an al-Qaeda affiliate that may well be their masters.
The implication of this information not only undercuts the false characterizations of the attacks by the administration, but raises questions about the fact that it did not adequately communicate the truth about the danger from al-Qaeda and its allies to Ambassador Stevens. As Lake writes:
Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who was killed at the Benghazi consulate, also expressed concerns about the rise of al Qaeda in Libya. CNN first reported Stevens had concerns that he was on a Qaeda hit list, something Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied publicly. But CNN had access to the slain ambassador’s personal journal, which supported this reporting on his concerns about security in the country where he served.
As the Times headline makes clear, this is no small scandal. What’s really troubling here is not so much that U.S. intelligence failed to prevent the attack but the sense, reinforced by the weeks of deceptive statements about these events, that no one in the Obama administration was prepared to talk about terrorism because doing so undercuts the Democratic campaign narrative about bin Laden’s death and victory over al Qaeda. It was bad enough that this message was being conveyed to the country before the Libya attack, but the stubborn persistence with which the president’s foreign policy team and spokespersons continued to claim that the trouble was an Internet video critical of Islam rather than an al-Qaeda offensive fatally undermines their credibility.
Romney was widely lambasted for his criticisms of the administration’s behavior in the first days after the event even though what he said was correct. Since then, he has been wary of doing anything that would allow his critics to claim he was trying to exploit a tragedy. But what we have learned in the last few days makes it imperative that someone should try to hold the president accountable for what has happened as well as a mindset that makes it clear his aides are more worried about potential political damage than they are about the security of our diplomats or what al-Qaeda is doing.
Indeed, even in the conclusion of the Times article the same sort of complacence can be heard. Colin Kahl, “a former Pentagon official who is an advisor to the Obama campaign,” bragged that the death of bin Laden would overshadow the impact of the revelations about the Libya attack. But Libya proves that killing bin Laden is no substitute for a coherent foreign policy. What recent events have shown is that Obama’s weak leadership and politicized judgment is leading to disaster in the Middle East. If even the New York Times understands this, one suspects that the American public may be starting to think about it too.