While there is still some debate about whether the attacks on Benghazi were premeditated, it is very clear that Mitt Romney's criticism of the Administration's response to them certainly was. He had been waiting all year for a foreign policy opportunity and the attack on the consulate was the opening he needed.
Now, Gov. Romney prepares to deliver the coups de grace that Paul Ryan teed up for him last week when he accused VP Biden of not knowing what was going on, let's examine the strength of Gov. Romney's argument.
1. All this strife in the Middle East is a sign of weakness and failed foreign policy.
To date, Gov. Romney hasn't delivered a convincing argument that there would be any substantial difference between his policies and Obama's, but he keeps repeating this message on the campaign trail. Is it true?
The facts of history really don't bear out the theory that talking tough keeps other nations in line. Let's travel back in time to 2008. President George Bush was traveling to the Middle East to bolster his strategy of aligning so-called "moderate Arab states" against Iran. On the eve of his trip, Iranian-backed terrorists launched Katyushka rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Israel retaliated with missile strikes on Lebanon. Iran assembled a flotilla of warships to confront the US Navy.
It's a good thing President Bush wasn't running for reelection!
I have a hard time believing that Mitt Romney thinks that George W. Bush was weak on foreign policy when over 2/3s of his foreign policy advisers served in the Bush Administration.
2. But this is the first ambassador killed since 1979! 1979! Iran Hostage Crisis! Carter! Woo-ooo!
This seems to be the thrust of conservative criticisms against Obama's handling of the Middle East. One problem: US embassy officials and diplomats have been killed in the line of duty more recently than that....like during the Bush Administration.
Remember the investigations and Congressional hearings on AID official, John Granville's killing in 2008? Me, neither.
Two years previous, an official working at the Karachi, Pakistan consulate, David Foy, was killed in a powerful car bomb. Was the Bush Administration supposed to learn from the Karachi incident in order to avoid the Sudan incident? It seems as though they didn't.
3. Diplomatic work is dangerous, so why the heck did the Administration cut back on security in Libya when they asked for it?
Another piece of the argument is that Obama cannot manage his State Department-- so let's zero in on embassy security.
First of all, let's get one thing straight--without sufficient foreign law enforcement, US diplomatic facilities abroad cannot be completely secured. Local events can turn into huge security issues very quickly, as this diplomatic veteran of the Reagan Administration recounts.
Stevens no doubt had ample security, and the level of security was determined by intelligence reports and the likelihood of violence. But ultimately all diplomats from every country must depend on the local government for their protection. When that government cannot, or refuses to, respond, as was the case with our embassy in Tehran in 1979, the situation becomes plainly hopeless for those in the diplomatic compound.Given that, could additional staff had helped the situation? What about the specific request cited in the Congressional hearings? The request that State Department officials actually denied in Libya was the extension of a security team in Tripoli, miles and hours away from the consulate facility in Benghazi.
The dozen or so Marines in the embassy serve primarily to provide internal security and only as a last resort to defend the building itself. Diplomatic security agents, often in coordination with local police forces, are responsible for the safety and welfare of all embassy personnel and for the personal protection of the ambassador. But, again, although brave and well trained, they are few in number.
Again, without strong local law enforcement, embassy security is just window dressing.
4. So what does it all mean?
Here's the gotcha....only it's for Mitt Romney, not for Obama. If you're President of the United States, there is a very high likelihood that some diplomatic, military or important civilian target abroad will be attacked by a terrorist. What does it mean?
In August 1998, two embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were nearly simultaneously attacked. The Clinton Administration struggled to piece together who was responsible for the bomings. Two years later, the USS Cole was attacked. The Clinton Administration struggled to put the pieces together. We now know that these attacks paved the way for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In light of our recent history with global terrorism, is it wise for a Presidential candidate to start throwing vague and misleading criticisms at the sitting President before all the facts are in? And considering that the very advisors that Mitt Romney presently employs are the very same ones that ignored the growing evidence of an al Qaeda threat, can we count on his team to connect the dots that will help us understand this new threat.
In early January, [Clinton Security Advisor, Richard] Clarke briefed Rice on terrorism. He gave similar presentations—describing al Qaeda as both an adaptable global network of jihadist organizations and a lethal core terrorist organization—to Vice President–elect Cheney, Hadley, and Secretary of State–designate Powell. One line in the briefing slides said that al Qaeda had sleeper cells in more than 40 countries, includ- ing the United States.... [Clinton Security Advisor Sandy] Berger told us that he made a point of dropping in on Clarke’s briefing of Rice to emphasize the importance of the issue. Later the same day, Berger met with Rice. He says that he told her the Bush administration would spend more time on terrorism in general and al Qaeda in particular than on anything else. Rice’s recollection was that Berger told her she would be surprised at how much more time she was going to spend on ter- rorism than she expected, but that the bulk of their conversation dealt with the faltering Middle East peace process and North Korea. Clarke said that the new team,having been out of government for eight years,had a steep learning curve to understand al Qaeda and the new transnational terrorist threat.So just how well do Mitt Romney and his advisors understand the new terrorist threats four years after the Bush Administration, in a post-bin Laden era? What are the new threats? How has the organization evolved?
Gov. Romney can't leverage a buyout of al Qaeda. He can't turn to the anti-government forces in his party and find a nice private sector solution to this problem. This one requires old fashioned analysis, something lacking among his current advisors.
5. The Democracy Paradox
Back to that local law enforcement component. It would appear that sometimes, in fledgeling new democracies, law enforcement is less than perfect. Stuff happens.
So, Gov. Romney....we think that terrorist forces may be behind the attack on the Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. For some reason we're still trying to sort out, Libyan security was unable to control the well-armed crowd--which likely armed itself well during Kaddafi's deposing. Before you respond, you should know that the citizens of Benghazi, many of whom know people who died trying to depose the previous regime, took to the streets the next day and protested the attack on the consulate.
What should our response be, as an American government?
This is important for you to think about, Gov. Romney, because some of your very advisors were the ones advocating for democracy in the Middle East. Some could argue that they were the midwives that brought about the fall of regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Some conservative supporters of Mid East democracy were even held hostage in the American Embassy shortly before the Arab Spring.
So when you say you would "stand up for American values" and "show American strength" to whom exactly are you standing up and showing your strength? The terrorists don't care and the people fighting for democracy don't exactly trust us. You have to admit that we don't have the most stellar track record in this area, having propped up corrupt Middle Eastern leaders for decades.
So that the end of all the bluster, we're left with the ultimate gotcha question: What would you do differently from Obama, exactly and how would it help?