There's something bizarre coming out of the final (thank God) presidential debate: a righteous debate over whether President Obama called the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a terrorist attack the day after it happened.
Certainly, he talked about avenging "acts of terror" from the Rose Garden on September 12, even as his administration colleagues continued to very publicly push the line that the attack—which claimed the life of four Americans, including Amb. Chris Stevens—was a spontaneous reaction to the YouTube video "The Innocence of Muslims."
Focusing on a single, less-than-important utterance by the president is a great way of missing the bigger picture, which has been painted in terrifying detail by journalists such as The Daily Beast's Eli Lake. Lake has documented how jihadists had attacked Western targets in Benghazi months before the 9/11 attack, that U.S. sources realized the 9/11 attack was a planned operation long before the public learned that fact, that the ambassador feared for his safety, that security had been reduced, and more. Via CNN and other sources, we continue to learn more about the constant screwups and miscommunications plaguing our presence in Libya. What kind of world are we living in when politicians (including Republicans!) seem more fixated on a throwaway line in a speech rather than a serious investigation of why American diplomats are being killed?
The large point of this all is that regardless of what Obama might have might have meant right after the attack (it's not clear that his "acts of terror" comment on September 12 was a specific reference to Benghazi), his adminstration royally screwed up in Libya. It's totally clear why the Obama administration would be slow to acknowledge the truth of the attack— it undercut what they saw as the success of their containment of al Qaeda—but it's just ridiculous for the larger media and voting public to play along with fixation on minor details.
We can all agree, I assume, that the murder of an ambassador in a country we supposedly helped liberate just months earlier is a disaster. How does that horrible outcome reflect on the way in which the U.S. first got involved in the bombing raids that helped depose Qaddafi? And all that happened since then? Is the self-evidently failed security around the American consulate a logical conclusion from poorly conceived and executed policy or a tragic aberration from a sensible plan? Those are the sorts of questions that the presidential debates—and ensuing media colloquies—would be better off asking. And not just about Libya but the bigger question of U.S. foreign policy. Which, if Monday's debate was any indication, really doesn't concern South America, Europe, or vast portions of Africa.