Conservative commentators have seized on President Obama's Thursday appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, lambasting him for minimizing the killings of four Americans as "not optimal." This is an entirely manufactured “gaffe” based on a willful misinterpretation of the exchange, but the real shame is how it shifts the question of caring about human lives away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where civilians and American soldiers continue to die.
We are led to believe that Obama has been caught in an unguarded moment and revealed himself as a callous robot that thinks of American deaths not as "tragic" but as "not optimal." The context of the exchange deflates this interpretation.
President Obama used the phrase in an echo of Jon Stewart, who had just said, "is part of the investigation helping the communication between these divisions? Not just what happened in Benghazi, but what happened within. Because I would say, even you would admit it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page." Obama replied, “Well here's what I'll say: If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. And we're going to fix it.”
Oliver Willis at Media Matters for America has posted a response to the affair, in which he argues that Obama’s answer, “in fuller context, makes it obvious that he was discussing the inadequacy of early communications between different arms of the government — not the deaths of personnel.” The question does suggest that Obama was calling the failure of communication not optimal, as opposed to the deaths.
But, frankly, the debate shouldn’t hinge on finding the right antecedent to the pronoun. This is a non-gaffe parading as something worth talking about. The comment represented an admission that the administration did not handle the situation well and a reminder that the real issue is that four Americans lost their lives.
The problem is not so much the attempts by conservative sources to make hay from the broader exchange with Jon Stewart about Libya. Attacking the president's handling of a foreign policy crisis is fair game. My problem is with the deliberate mischaracterization of Obama's remarks and the attempt to center criticism of his foreign policy on whether he was said enough about the Benghazi deaths. It’s politics at its most shameless, but instrumentalizing these deaths to attack the president also obscures the more meaningful question of whether he weighs human lives highly enough in his foreign policy.
The escalating drone war has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen. But when you're trying to inflame the conservative base, talking about dead Pakistanis doesn’t get as much traction as pretending that Obama doesn’t care about American lives.
Four Americans died on September 11 in Benghazi. Around eight women died in one NATO air strike in Afghanistan less than a week later. That same month in Afghanistan, 27 coalition soldiers died, and if past trends are any indication, it's likely that hundreds of Afghan civilians also died from a combination of insurgent attacks and coalition strikes. And the drone war next door continued unabated.
If Obama wants to show that he’s not callous about human lives, he should talk seriously about the future of Afghanistan and scaling back drone warfare. If Romney wants to make caring about human lives an issue, he should do the same. But considering Romney's enthusiasm for drones and the lack of interest on both sides, I don’t think we’ll see anything of the sort from either.