RSS
The Benghazi attack: Does it matter whether Obama calls it terrorism?
In the eyes of many critics, the most baffling part of Mitt Romney's flubbed Libya offensive against President Obama is the Republican's focus on labels
 
President Obama makes his first remarks about the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack in the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 12. He vowed that the U.S. would not tolerate "acts of terror."
President Obama makes his first remarks about the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack in the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 12. He vowed that the U.S. would not tolerate "acts of terror."
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Many Republicans are baffled by Mitt Romney's notable failure to singe President Obama on his administration's handling of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Almost every political scorekeeper rates the Benghazi episode a real political liability for Obama. Among the "variety of attacks available," suggests Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post, are Obama's decision to intervene in Libya, his handling of the Arab Spring, whether the diplomats should have been better protected, or more generally whether the attack "undermined Obama's claim of policy competency." That's why many observers are puzzled by the GOP fixation on when the White House started labeling the tragedy "terrorism" — the line of attack that backfired on Romney, and that his supporters are still furiously litigating. Why are critics so focused on who labeled it a terrorist attack, and when? Here are some reasons the "terrorism" label matters — and doesn't:

WHY IT MATTERS

1. Labels affect policy
This is "not a trivial quibble over words but rather a serious debate over some of the Obama administration's core national security doctrines," says Will Inboden at Foreign Policy. Obama did say "terror" in his Sept. 12 Rose Garden speech, but that's "beside the point" — even a spontaneous lynching is an "act of terror." The larger issue is that Team Obama tried to pass the Benghazi attack off as a reaction to an anti-Muslim video instead of calling it what it appears to have been: "A premeditated attack by an organized terrorist group." This refusal to acknowledge terrorism may seem harmless, but it involves "policy commitments that guide how the administration acts — including mid-level State Department officials who deny requests for increased security in Libya."

2. It shows that Obama puts politics above national security
The Obama administration is still having trouble getting its story straight on when it knew the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism, says Ari Fleischer at CNN. Is that incompetence or dishonesty? Either one is dangerous, but surely "this administration has a political imperative to downplay terrorism." A big part of Obama's re-election pitch is that Osama bin Laden is dead, "the administration is tough, and terrorism is on the wane." Having U.S. diplomats die in a terrorist attack sullies that message, which is why Team Obama spent two weeks focusing on the anti-Islam video. National security is too important for games like that.

3. The story bolsters Romney's central argument
The assertion that Obama refused to call the Libya attack "terrorism" for two weeks is at "the nucleus of the Obama's-weak-on-terror case" that has underpinned Republican foreign policy of the past four years, says David Weigel at Slate. A large part of Romney's non-domestic sales pitch rests on the idea that "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 deaths are too perfect an illustration of that point to give up just because Romney whiffed his attack in one debate.

WHY IT'S IRRELEVANT

1. The criticism doesn't ring true
Obama used the phrase "act of terror" mere hours after the Benghazi attack, says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that he'd stuck with his other Sept. 12 descriptors — "outrageous and shocking attack," "terrible act" — and left out the word terror. So what? "Are the American people really going to worry that re-electing Obama risks future terrorist attacks that aren't promptly labeled as such?" Of course not. This line of criticism will fail because it is "built on fantasy." Obama has plenty of flaws, but "an unwillingness to confront acts of terrorism and terrorists isn't one of them," and voters know that.

2. This fight is a counterproductive distraction
This whole battle over Benghazi would be less of a national embarrassment, says Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, if Romney and other Republicans would use their legitimate role as opposition party "not to raise doubts about the commander-in-chief's innermost feelings about terrorism, but to ask what specific actions do we need to take, quickly, to try to prevent follow-on attacks?" But apparently we're unable to behave like adults, and "because the conversation around Benghazi is so stupid," we're going to miss the important questions, implement "more mindless CYA security 'improvements'" for already-isolated diplomats, and, ironically, take our eyes off "ways to defeat Islamist terrorism."

3. We still don't know the whole story
Team Obama's explanation for its shifting story on the attacks is that in the ongoing investigation, the intel was "clouded in ambiguities and questions," says David Kirkpatrick in The New York Times. And while Republicans are sure this was a premeditated attack by affiliates of al Qaeda and has nothing to do with the anti-Islam movie, "Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers" tell a different story: The U.S. diplomats were killed by "a well-known group of local Islamist militants" who never mentioned al Qaeda or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have at best tangential ties to global jihadists, and spoke "emotionally of their anger at the video." U.S. spy agencies are reserving judgment, but "so far the intelligence assessments appear to square largely with local accounts."

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week