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Has Benghazi Opportunism Run Its Course?

Baseball analogies are particularly overused come playoff season, but in this case it's unavoidable. Mitt Romney heads into the final presidential debate, one with a foreign-policy focus, having already taken two mighty swings in trying to hit a home run off of what Republicans have convinced themselves was a hanging curveball, the fatal Sept. 11. attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Each time—on the night of the attacks, and at last week's debate on Long Island—he whiffed. Meanwhile, new reports over the weekend have further undermined the Republican critique. Will Romney take another swing Monday night, even at the risk of a big strike-out?

For weeks now, I've been truly mystified by Republicans' alacrity over the attacks' value as an issue to campaign on—and by the way that the media coverage of the attacks has encouraged this preoccupation. Poll after poll has made clear how low voters are ranking foreign policy as a determining factor this year, and yet here was Romney on the night of the Benghazi attack jumping to capitalize on attacks in a city that millions of Americans had never heard of. His statement from that night is still jarring: "I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. … It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." It was outdone that night only by the tweet sent out by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus: "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic." The overwhelmingly negative reaction to Romney's statement did not keep him from holding a shakily-executed press conference redoubling his critique of the Obama administration the following morning, when it was clear that among the four Americans killed in Benghazi was Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Romney's initial opportunism was chalked up to his party's conviction that Obama is the second coming of Jimmy Carter—here was Obama's own Iran hostage crisis, never mind the many ways in which the two events differed. Romney himself had written a whole book premised on the notion that Obama has been on a worldwide tour apologizing for America, so the fact that our Cairo embassy had put out a statement lamenting the anti-Islam video that was stirring up crowds in Egypt was apparently too hard for Romney to resist seizing on. The real question, though, is why his campaign has persisted on this front even after its initial foray went so poorly, going so far as to start invoking one of the fallen four Americans on the trail so often that his mother cried foul. And in answering this question it becomes hard to separate the campaign's opportunism from media coverage of the attacks, which has gone from holding the administration to necessary account to, in some cases, losing all sense of perspective in the attempt to be seen as probing and impartial. Quite simply, important questions about the administration's performance somehow became inflated into a bona-fide scandal designation that was unjustified by the facts.

There were two administration failures around Benghazi: a failure to provide adequate security at the consulate, and a failure to provide a consistent explanation for what had happened on September 11 as the facts emerged. But these failures do not add up to the grand conspiracy of fecklessness and cover-up that Republicans have sought to portray, and that furrow-browed coverage of the attacks has suggested. For one thing, there is the matter of scale: horrific as the attacks were, and unusual as the killing of an ambassador is, one cannot help but wonder how much attention the deaths of these four Americans would be getting if they were not occurring during a relatively quiet (or quiescent) time for Americans abroad—if, say, they had occurred amid the persistent, large-scale loss of American life in Iraq in the middle of the last decade. Second, the dudgeon over the attacks overlooks important context, namely that Libya remains, despite that day's horror, a relatively bright spot for the U.S. in the Arab world. Where else have we seen large pro-American demonstrations of the sort that took place after the attacks?

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Then there are the mitigating arguments on each of the two failures identified above. Yes, security in Benghazi was inadequate. But Republican attempts to capitalize on this, and to cast Stevens as the victim of administration incompetence on this score, overlook a) the fact that the unfulfilled request for added security was for the embassy in Tripoli, not the Benghazi consulate and b) the inconvenient reality that Stevens was among those diplomats who believed in erring on the side of openness and risk, rather than on the side of fortress-like security. As Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post on Friday:

To my mind, there is only one truly disturbing element of this discussion: the underlying assumptions — made by almost everyone participating in the argument — that no American diplomats should ever be exposed to any risk whatsoever and that it is always better to have too much security than too little.
Since Ambassador Chris Stevens’s death, it’s become widely known that he did not subscribe to those assumptions. He was a popular, admired and successful ambassador precisely because he traveled around the country where he was posted, got out of his residence, spoke Arabic and understood the value of public diplomacy. He was in Benghazi on Sept. 11 to open a new cultural center where Libyans could get access to books and movies about America, something he clearly thought was important.

As for the matter of the evolving administration statements on the attacks, there is now even less reason to believe that there was deliberate obfuscation or deception involved in Susan Rice's declaration a few days after the Benghazi attack that it was motivated by furor over the video, rather than being a premeditated attack. The well-sourced David Ignatius reported in his most recent column:

The Romney campaign may have misfired with its suggestion that statements by President Obama and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice about the Benghazi attack last month weren’t supported by intelligence, according to documents provided by a senior U.S. intelligence official.
“Talking points” prepared by the CIA on Sept. 15, the same day that Rice taped three television appearances, support her description of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the United States. According to the CIA account, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
The CIA document went on: “This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.” This may sound like self-protective boilerplate, but it reflects the analysts’ genuine problem interpreting fragments of intercepted conversation, video surveillance and source reports.
The senior intelligence official said the analysts’ judgment was based in part on monitoring of some of the Benghazi attackers, which showed they had been watching the Cairo protests live on television and talking about them before they assaulted the consulate. “We believe the timing of the attack was influenced by events in Cairo,” the senior official said, reaffirming the Cairo-Benghazi link. He said that judgment is repeated in a new report prepared this week for the House intelligence committee.

This would seem to seriously undermine the Republican theory that Rice was deliberately peddling a misleading line about the attacks in order to buttress the administration's claim that it has Islamic extremists on the run. But then, the weakness of the Republican critique was already made apparent at last week's Hofstra debate, where Romney's move against Obama descended into a semantic morass over just when and where Obama had used the word "terror"—a morass in which Romney not only lost elevation but also set himself up to fact-checked by the debate moderator and to be chastised by Obama for politicizing the attack. Why did Romney persist in taking a second stab on this front after the first one went so badly? I wonder whether, in addition to the general Republican and media drumbeat on the issue, he was seeking some personal vindication. He surely knows how badly he came off on the first go-round, on September 11 and 12, and perhaps believed that by turning the issue around against Obama, he could cancel out the earlier embarrassment. And indeed, the fallout from the attack—with its sustained front-page treatment—has taken a toll on Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy. But when Romney tried to bring the issue back up face-to-face at Hofstra, in what his party was sure was going to be one of his best issues that night, it produced his worst debate moment.

Where does that leave Romney for the final debate in Boca Raton? There are still plenty on his side who believe the Benghazi issue is a winner—in her column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote:

Obama doesn't seem to be winning the postdebate [after Hofstra]. No one is talking about his excellence or his stunningly good performance—no one is talking about that. Instead the national conversation has been about the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Did the president tell the truth at the time? Was he telling it now?

Noonan must pick up her "national conversation" in different places than I do, because I haven't really heard everyone talking about Benghazi the past few days (have you?) Such echo-chamber spin may convince Romney that he should take one more swing at this. But Saturday also brought the news, from Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, that the document dump by Darrell Issa, the House Republican who oversaw a committee hearing on the attacks last week, had compromised the identities of Libyans working with the U.S. That is, that Republican opportunism has come at a real cost for people far beyond the realm of campaign trail gamesmanship. One suspects that if Romney takes another cut at this issue tonight, Obama will make this point as he calls Romney out.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis