Who Won the Debate Tonight: Mitt Romney Loses on Libya, Obama Dominates Benghazi Issue

On Monday, President Obama and Mitt Romney squared off on the issue of Libya, and specifically, whether the Obama administration could have prevented the attacks in Benghazi in the aftermath of the release of an anti-Muslim video. Who won the debate on this point?

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

Nothing is sacred in politics. However, the way the Benghazi attacks have been used politically (especially by Republicans) has been downright deplorable.

While there was clearly a failure on the part of the State Department to provide adequate security for the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Republican attacks — and the resulting investigation in the House — have done nothing to increase American security nor to further our foreign policy interests.

For the first time in what seems like forever, the Democratic presidential ticket is polling higher than the Republican ticket on national security. While foreign policy is unlikely to play a pivotal role in the election, it is something neither side can let go without comment. For the Democrats, it is impossible to get through a speech without hearing mention of the demise of Osama bin Laden. Republicans believe they have found a way to attack the president by using the attack on Benghazi, having realized that general hits against Obama on his “apologizing” and “leading from behind” aren’t working.

The attacks in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11 resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. The resulting outrage spanned from questions of why we were supporting Libya in their transition, to questions on America’s Middle East foreign policy. Even basic reporting suffered, as news organizations devoted little time to the outrage felt by many Libyans, or the fact that tens of thousands not only marched against the militias but even stormed the base of the militia, Ansar al-Sharia, which was initially believed to be behind the attack.

Meanwhile, Republicans pounced on the muddled response given by members of the Obama administration. As Senator Lindsay Graham puts it, "They're trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that the Mideast, the wars are receding and al Qaeda has been dismantled. And to admit that our embassy has been attacked by al Qaeda operatives and Libya — leading from behind — didn't work, I think undercuts that narrative… I think they've been misleading us and it finally caught up with them."

Republicans now regularly allege there was some sort of cover-up by the Obama administration, going so far as hold hearings on the matter led by Rep. Darrell Issa, a man who never met a possible investigation of the Obama administration he didn’t like.

What’s wrong with the hearing (and the questions put forth in another PolicyMic article) is that nearly all of these political attacks are pure baloney. (Ahem, malarkey.) Many Republicans have questioned why the repeated requests for security by staff in Benghazi were not only denied but State Department officials actually asked the staff to stop requesting security. As senior Obama adviser David Axelrod points out, the White House was unaware of these requests. If anyone was at fault, it was security officials in the State Department.

Republicans are also regularly targeting Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, who said based on assessments at the time that the attacks were not premeditated. What Republicans conveniently forget is that Obama condemned acts of terror in his speech the day after the attack. Eight days after the attack, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, said that it was unknown whether the attackers chose the day specifically, or tried to make use of the protests against an anti-Islamic film.

If anyone wants to talk about a muddled response, they might want to see Mitt Romney’s speech on the matter.

Finally, many question why the Obama administration won’t just say the perpetrators of the attack are Al Qaeda. The reason, again given by Matt Olsen, is that they were not sure who was behind the attack. According to Olsen, Al Qaeda aligned groups such as Al Qaeda in the Maghred (AQIM), Al Qaeda inspired groups, or local militias, such as Ansar al-Sharia. To label all extremists as Al Qaeda is an exercise in laziness.  If Sun Tzu’s quote about knowing your enemy is true, then Republicans are certainly losing this battle.

Did the Obama administration as a whole fumble the response? Sure, although the president himself did condemn the attacks fully.

Is the president responsible for the State Department ultimately? Of course, but to claim there is some cover-up is just cheap political hogwash.

Are Republicans trying to give voters a reason to doubt Obama’s clear advantage on national security? Yes, but until Romney gives a clear account of what he would have done differently, he will not win this debate.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

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Jonathan Bertman

Jonathan Bertman holds a MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in politics and economics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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