A political gaffe turns into a gutsy judgment call.
With the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi sliding from the realm of tragedy to farce and now to full-blown scandal, many truths are coming to light. First, administration officials tried to sell the American people an implausible story that a protest organically turned into a coordinated commando-style assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound. Second, this was done to protect the president from political damage by the reemergence of al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated terror groups. After all those speeches about “the tide of war receding,” after all those reminders that “bin Laden is dead and GM is alive,” after all those leaks to The New York Times detailing the president’s hands-on role planning the bin Laden raid, authorizing drone strikes and launching cyber-attacks, the narrative could not become that the jihadists are still active, still capable of killing Americans, still waging war. And third, perhaps just as important, at least in terms of the future conduct of American foreign and defense policy, the administration’s Benghazi scandal has revealed that Mitt Romney was right.
Let’s begin the story on September 11, 2012. As that infamous YouTube video began to hit the public consciousness, the U.S. embassy in Cairo decided to release this statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
That didn’t calm the anger of those outside the embassy, and protests turned into a full-blown riot in Cairo, prompting the embassy to declare, “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands.”
That angered Romney, who saw the episode in terms of American values—especially freedom of speech—and he believes that American embassies should always be exponents of those values. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” he said, concluding, rightly, that a) the embassy is part of the administration and b) embassy officials had taken a blame-America position.
Interestingly, the administration also quickly disavowed the embassy’s statement: “No one in Washington approved that statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government.”
Soon, we were told, the rioting had spread to Benghazi and then turned deadly, as Ambassador Stevens and three in his staff were killed by an angry mob.
The Obama team then tried to turn its own botched handling of Benghazi into a Romney problem. “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” the Obama campaign said.
President Obama added, “Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that.”
The president’s surrogates and his dutiful press pounced, concluding the episode revealed that Romney lacked the temperament to be commander-in-chief. Some called him “rash,” “irresponsible” and “craven.” Others dismissed his statements as “disgraceful,” “ill-timed” and “appalling.”
But Romney, to his credit, did not back down. “I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation…An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”
He thoughtfully and calmly criticized the president for sending “mixed messages,” adding, “The statement that came from the administration—and the embassy is the administration…was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a severe miscalculation.”
When the weekend rolled around, Ambassador Susan Rice led the charge to minimize the terrorist angle. “What our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy—sparked by this hateful video,” Rice said on several TV interviews. “But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in.” (The ludicrous notion that an offensive video or cartoon can somehow justify violence, riots or murder is a subject for another essay.)
Others in the administration spun the same tale, straining to conflate the YouTube video, the protests and the deadly attacks. “I think it’s important to note with regards to that protest that there are protests taking place in different countries across the world that are responding to the movie that has circulated on the Internet,” White House spokesman Jay Carney explained.
Even the president tried to sell the fiction. “What we’ve seen over the last week, week and a half, is something that actually we've seen in the past, where there is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the prophet Muhammad…What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists.”
Of course that is untrue, and was known to be untrue at the time. The Heritage Foundation’s helpful timeline notes that Libyan President Mohamed Magarief concluded, “no doubt that this [attack] was preplanned, predetermined.”
As the redoubtable Eli Lake has reported, citing “three separate U.S. intelligence officials,” “Within 24 hours of the 9-11 anniversary attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications al Qaeda-affiliated operatives were behind the attack.”
And by October 9, the State Department had totally torpedoed the Obama-Rice story. When asked if the attacks were an outgrowth of some spontaneous riot, State Department officials said, “That was not our conclusion,” devastatingly adding, there wasn’t even a demonstration against the YouTube clip. “There had been nothing unusual during the day outside,” they said, noting that it wasn’t until late in the evening that they “saw on the security cameras that there were armed men invading the compound.”
Far from revealing that Romney lacks the temperament to be president, the Obama administration’s Benghazi scandal shows that Romney has the guts to stand up for America and her values—even in the face of withering political attacks—and the gut instinct to recognize a cover-up in the making.
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