How Did Romney Blow His Chance To Attack Obama on Libya?

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Oct. 17 2012 1:47 AM

Acts of Terror—or an Error?

Republicans twist themselves in knots over the meaning of the word “terror”—and miss the point.

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“For the president to suggest that he was talking about a terrorist attack in Benghazi is totally off base,” said Chaffetz. “He was talking about terror in general, not terror specific to Benghazi.”

Republican are right in this sense: The words “terrorist attack” didn’t appear in the Rose Garden remarks. They’re wrong in this sense: Obama referred to “an attack on our diplomatic post,” then promised that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” It was unspecific, it was flowery, and it was forgotten. And that was the administration’s problem. The subsequent cannonades of questions and documents and witnesses and punditry and timelines had formed into a glowing radioactive gruel, “Benghazi-gate,” in which the administration was simply hapless and ignorant and unable to say that terrorism exists.

“The fact of the matter is that I think he used the word TERROR,” said former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. “The fact of the matter is seven days later, on David Letterman, he was still attributing it to a spontaneous reaction to that ugly movie. Oh, by the way—check out his speech to the United Nations! That’s not on David Letterman, that’s not in the Rose Garden, that’s the international community. He talked about it being a spontaneous reaction to a movie.”

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Again, this is almost right. At the United Nations, the president said, in a banal sort of way, that “there is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.” But in the days after Sept. 11, there were more throngs outside embassies, using the video as a pretext. The Benghazi outpost was a consulate, not an embassy, and its attackers had, indeed, mentioned the video as a justification for the murder. At another point in the U.N. speech, the president said that “the attacks on the civilians in Benghazi were attacks on America.”

But Obama didn’t say “terrorism.” That was the nucleus of the Obama’s-weak-on-terror case—the president has struck words and phrases like “Jihadism” and “terrorism” and “global war on terror” from the lexicon, proof that he doesn’t take this stuff seriously. The Benghazi muddle had been the perfect vehicle for that argument. And now, there was a risk that voters would see the Sept. 12 Obama statement again and wonder whether the confusing post-attack reporters were all that contradictory.

Republicans tried to pre-empt this by re-litigating “acts of terror.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus arrived in the spin room, conferred with Chaffetz and his marked-up paper, and insisted that Obama had been bailed out unfairly by Crowley.

“He didn’t call it a terrorist attack in the Rose Garden,” said Priebus. “He didn’t call it a terrorist attack in the Rose Garden. We’ve got the transcript of when Jay Carney, the president, time and again referred to this as a spontaneous attack.” There were six days left before the foreign policy debate, and this would haunt Obama. “If you point-blank lie to the American people on something that’s already a headache for you, it’s not going to get any better.”

They think the terror/terrorism difference—which Crowley admitted in post-debate interviews—is stark enough to make the headache worse. But it’s hard to re-muddle something once it’s been cleared up.