During today’s – October 22 – foreign policy debate at 9pm (EST), Republicans want a donnybrook on the Benghazi blowback to make up for the loss Romney suffered in the last debate, held at Hofstra University on October 16. For a week, conservative talkers have been licking their wounds on the politicisation of the Libyan attack, where their candidate first “dropped his 3am call”, according to James Fallows, and then tried to interrogate the President in a Perry Mason moment.
‘Act of terror’
“I think interesting the president just said something which – which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?”
“Please proceed governor.”
“I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
“Get the transcript.”
At this point the moderator, Candy Crowley, did her job and interjected, “It – it – it he did in fact, sir. So let me – let me call is an act of terror…
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
In the aftermath of the second debate, the moderator came under heavy scrutiny for sticking to the facts, which seems to have invalidated any idea of a cover-up.
Peter King, the representative from Long Island, told me the president has been asserting he executed the “war on terror” much more effectively than the previous administration. “President has been saying that he vanquished al-Qaeda, but now it is clear that this is not the case,” said King.
Jason Chaffetz, congressman from Utah, was even more forceful. When I asked him whether the attack was partly a reflection of a blowback, he said: “You’ve got to understand this was a very tumultuous situation. Twice the British ambassador had an assassination attempt.” He suggested there was a systematic neglect in security at the Benghazi consulate.
I asked Dan Senor, a foreign policy adviser to the Romney team, about the “act of terror” statement made by the president. He said, “It was at the end of president’s statement. I have the transcript here. It was a vague statement.”
Congressman Chaffetz tweeted the day after the debate, “After Candy Crowley’s shameful – and flat-out wrong – characterisation of President Obama’s Rose Garden remarks on terrorism, she and CNN are still taking a great deal of heat for her highly unprofessional conduct.”
In the lead up to the foreign policy debate, which is one of president’s strength, there has been a concerted effort on part of Republicans to paint the president as weak and disengaged.
Congressman Issa of California, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who is heading a congressional investigation on the attack, disclosed 166 pages of unclassified State Department documents on Friday, October 19. The files revealed security lapses in Benghazi, a town festered with bands of militia and a growing al-Qaeda presence, after the fall of Gaddafi.
It also came to light that the Romney campaign may have misfired at Ambassador Susan Rice and the Obama team by suggesting a cover up, according to David Ignatius of Washington Post. The CIA documents state on September 15, the day Rice taped three interviews, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations…. This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analysed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.”
The Obama administration immediately counter-attacked the document dump for compromising security of several Libyans working in cooperation with the US government. On Sunday morning shows, the day before the debate, John Kerry, Dick Durbin and David Axelrod roundly criticised Issa’s action as “unconscionable”, “unacceptable”, “irresponsible and inexcusable” for endangering lives.
Today’s debate may be the ultimate opportunity for Romney to deploy his “no apology” attack, which has been fact-checked endlessly in the media to no avail. It has not delivered the “punch” or the “bounce” Romney had hoped for in order to overtake his opponent. Yet, do not be surprised if Romney uses it again derisively to claim, “Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologise for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined”.
Obama’s foreign policy record is the best apologia or defence in the face of any attack Romney or his advisers can throw his way. The president must enunciate his foreign policy achievements for the audience who may not be familiar.
“No drama” Obama must decisively end the “no apology” tour on Monday night, with a clear winner and loser, akin to a Balinese cockfight as described by Geertz in “deep play”.
According to Pew Research, Obama’s 2012 approval ratings still remain high around the world, when compared with George Bush’s ratings in 2008, except in the majority Muslim world. Among the traditional allies, Obama remains more popular, likeable and trustworthy than his opponent.
The president must explain to the audience why his policies are still the better antidote for a rapidly globalising world – with a large American footprint and the emerging Pacific century – and why his life narrative inspires the ideals of exceptionalism.
Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next book on President Obama, Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published with Routledge Press.