Debate Highlight: Showdown Over Benghazi

Foreign policy came up just once – but that’s all it took

by , October 17, 2012

Since this presidential debate featured audience questions, and since Americans couldn’t care less about foreign policy, we were lucky to get even a single question on the subject. However, we got lucky when one fella got up and said he and some of his co-workers were disturbed by the news that the American consulate in Benghazi had been denied extra security prior to the attack which led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Why, he wanted to know, did that happen?

The President refused to answer the question: not in so many words, but by simply ignoring it. He used the opportunity to go on about the alleged success of his foreign policy: "I said we would end the war in Iraq, and I did" – forgetting the large number of "private contractors" still remaining, not to mention an "embassy" bigger than the Vatican and better armed than the Pentagon. He referred to his promise to scale down troops levels in Afghanistan, "and that’s what I did." Oh yeah, and Osama bin Laden is dead.

Well, yes, but what is the answer to the question – why was the Libyan consulate denied extra security?

The President isn’t telling. Candy Crowley broached the subject again when she asked if "the buck stops at the State Department." Hillary works for me, was Obama’s reply: yet still no answer to the very simple query about the decision to deny our Libyan diplomatic facilities extra security.

Mitt Romney, for his part, was no help. Instead of pursuing this angle, he went off on a tangent, repeating what we heard at the Biden-Ryan showdown: it took the President 14 days to acknowledge it was a terrorist attack – not true, as Candy helpfully confirmed. There was no demonstration protesting the "Innocence of Muslims" video, averred Romney, it was "a terrorist attack." Then we heard about Syria – 30,000 dead, said a mournful Mitt. Yes, but what would he do about it? There was no hint of that in his answer, which drifted off in to the stratosphere: the President’s foreign policy, we were told, is "unraveling."

Romney expected to score points on the Benghazi issue, but instead fell into a terminological quagmire, quibbling about what words the President used to describe the attack – and if you look at the transcript of Obama’s Rose Garden remarks, the President is correct that he described it as an "act of terror."

But so what? All violence is an "act of terror." The Benghazi assault, our drone war, the invasion of Iraq – all acts of terror. This is very far from confirming the right-wing Romneyite party line that Benghazi was a pre-planned operation masterminded by al Qaeda to mark the September 11 anniversary.

Obscuring the key role played by the "Innocence" video – because they really agree with its message, however inartfully expressed – Romney’s rightist base luxuriates in the notion that the President secretly sympathizes with the Islamists: and at the core of this is rumor that Obama is a secret Muslim (his middle name is a dead giveaway, don’tcha know).

Romney never says any of this explicitly, but he has his trusty dog whistle and he used it during the debate when he brought up Obama’s alleged "apology tour." He also mentioned the offensive video – without condemning it or even describing it – and once again implied that the President was playing politics with a national security issue of grave concern.

This is when Obama took Romney over his knee and gave him a good hard spanking – and one that was well-deserved. Turning to the GOP nominee with steel in his eyes and iron in his voice, he rejected the notion that he or any member of his administration would play politics with the lives of one of their own. To issue a press release in the midst of a crisis such as that, when lives were at stake and the fate of Ambassador Stevens was not yet known, was "offensive," said the President. But his eyes said: it was beneath contempt.

This was the most dramatic moment of the debate, and it’s significant it was over this issue in particular, because the War Party has been riding this story like a hobbyhorse. Their big problem, however, is that their narrative isn’t in accord with the facts. As the New York Times reports:

"To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence."

Go read the whole story for yourself. I said this from the beginning: it was the video. "Innocence of Muslims" was a deliberate provocation: the movie trailer was publicized in the Arab world due to the efforts of the film’s makers, promoters, and unknown financial backers. Riots throughout the Muslim world were the result – and in Libya, these days, a "protest" is more than likely to be an armed assault rather than a peaceful demonstration with placards and speeches.

That the makers and promoters of "Innocence" were well aware of this possibility is my own theory, and as we learn more about the origins of this provocation I believe this will be confirmed. This was no random YouTube stunt but a well-organized operation: so far we know almost nothing about it, except that the film’s alleged creator has at least a dozen aliases and is now safely behind bars, where no journalists can ask him any questions. Even his probation hearing was held behind closed doors: reporters were allowed to watch via video in another room. There is something distinctly odd about the whole affair, and yet our incurious media dropped the ball almost immediately. Sam Bacile, alias Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, alias Mark Basseley Youssef, etc., has dropped out of the headlines, along with all efforts to ferret out the film’s financial backers and the real creator of the project, who is almost certainly not the jailbird and fraudster currently receiving all the "credit."

While I’m not going to discuss the rest of the debate, which dealt almost exclusively with domestic issues outside my usual purview, I had to laugh when Romney accused the Chinese of "currency manipulation" because the yuan is "undervalued." What has the United States been doing for the past few decades – and at an ever-accelerating rate – but degrading its own currency, thanks to the policies of the Federal Reserve? Surely he knows this: the man is a pure demagogue.

It seems there’s always a foreign devil to blame for our domestic crises – somehow it’s never our fault. Funny how that works. Given the China-bashing competition engaged in by both candidates, if I were the Chinese I’d stop financing the American debt and start buying up the world’s gold reserves.

As to who won the second debate, the answer is clear enough: the President came out looking presidential, while Romney, in his over-eagerness to score points, and his deadly earnestness, came out looking like what he is – an over-ambitious second-rater. The look on his face as the President was telling him off for playing politics with Benghazi told the whole story of this election, and signaled its probable outcome: Mitt looked like he’d been caught playing one of his college pranks, as Obama squashed his smug grin into a grimace of real pain.

In short, Romney looked like the loser he is – a characterization I firmly believe will be confirmed on election night.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

By the way, what is the answer to that man’s question about the denial of the Benghazi consulate’s request for extra security? Inquiring minds want to know….

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