Obama's backtracking on the Benghazi terror attack deceives only himself
The president's debate claim was false, but more sinister is that it betrays his inability to perceive the failure of his Libya policy


Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Despite its importance, American national security did not come up in the 2012 town hall until the last 30 min.

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  • The citizen questioner in Long Island has a question that remains unanswered. #Libya #2012debates

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  • The real issue is why the administration persisted for weeks in its interpretation of the attack. #Libya

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Given the importance of American national security, it was discouraging that the issue did not come up in 2012's "town hall" presidential debate until the last 30 minutes. Fortunately, however, when moderator Candy Crowley finally got around to it, the undecided voter's question was very specific, and quite likely on the minds of many other US citizens. Referring to Washington's denials of requests for additional security from our embassy in Libya, the questioner asked:

"Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?"

Short and to the point. And Barack Obama did not answer it.

Instead, following his administration's gameplan on virtually every issue, Obama attacked Mitt Romney for allegedly politicizing the Benghazi attack. Romney responded by correctly noting that Obama and his surrogates had spent weeks erroneously blaming the assassination of four Americans on spontaneous demonstrators protesting the now-infamous Innocence of Muslims video trailer, rather than on a pre-planned terrorist attack.

Here, it gets interesting. Obama argued, as his surrogates had several weeks ago, that he had described the 11 September attack as terrorism the day afterward. Crowley came to his defense. But Obama's explanation is nothing but post-facto rationalization, and Crowley is simply, and embarrassingly, uninformed. Her intervention, which she effectively admitted after the debate was wrong, was as offensive for its error on the facts as it was for its partisanship.

We are not simply parsing words. What Obama said on 12 September, and what he and his aides said in the weeks after, tell volumes about his ideology and worldview, and why his foreign policy is in a state of collapse. On 12 September, Obama described the tragedy in Benghazi, placing it in the context of our painful remembrance of the first 11 September attacks. He spoke evocatively of walking through Arlington Cemetery on 11 September, honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only then did Obama say:

"No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation …"

Obviously, Obama was sweeping widely disparate acts of American courage and character on distant battlefields together in a message of determination, and well said it was. But it was by no means a declaration that the Benghazi attacks were undertaken by terrorists. Quite the contrary. Just a few paragraphs before, Obama had adumbrated the Muhammad video explanation, saying:

"Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence."

Romney's central point remains critical and unanswered by Obama.

The real issue is why the administration persisted for weeks in its interpretation that a spontaneous demonstration over the Muhammad video had gotten out of hand. This was not a problem of conflicting intelligence estimates or "the fog of war" as Vice-president Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and a host of others have said. As the attack was actually underway, security personnel in Benghazi were on cellphones to the State Department describing the attack – with no reference, obviously, to a demonstration that had never taken place.

On 12 September, the State Department's under-secretary for management, briefing congressional staffers, told them it was a terrorist attack. And a senior administration counter-terrorism official, testifying before Congress just a week after the attack, characterized it as terrorism. And yet, the president spoke before the world at the United Nations thereafter, still linking the assassinations of four Americans to the video.

Some characterize Obama's line of argument as a cover-up, an accusation the president theatrically denied during the town hall debate. Willful and repeated misrepresentation is certainly consistent with a cover-up, but it is also consistent with a presidential ideology that is so powerful and pervasive that facts and reality that don't conform to the worldview derived from the ideology are simply rejected.

Rather than facts changing the worldview, precisely the opposite happens for Obama. The discordant facts are screened from the president's consciousness and rejected.

The Obama storyline is that the "war on terror" is over, al-Qaida has been defeated, and Gaddafi's overthrow and the Arab Spring are bringing democracy to Libya. This worldview is also, coincidentally of course, very helpful to the president politically. In fact, however, the reality is quite different from Obama's ideology on all three of these points, as tragically demonstrated in Benghazi on 11 September, notwithstanding the president's stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge it.

Thus, Tuesday's debate hardly constitutes a rejection of the Romney assessment, which is solidly grounded in facts, and is being constantly reinforced as new facts come to light. Candy Crowley and her media colleagues may have taken a momentary delight in coming to Obama's side in the debate, but the American people will ultimately not be deceived. The citizen questioner in Long Island has a question that remains unanswered, and there are many more like it. And there are still three weeks until the election.

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John R.
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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