Clinton, Obama, Libya, and the New York Times

Yes, I read all of the New York Times‘ two-parter on Hillary Clinton and Libya. Is it damaging to Clinton? It depends on your perspective regarding the use of force.

On the one hand, the reporting shows that Clinton pushed hard to get us involved despite President Obama’s misgivings, thus helping to create the current disastrous situation. On the other hand, you could argue that the disaster flows directly from Obama’s tentativeness—letting himself be dragged into a conflict he didn’t want and then refusing to do what was needed to ensure stability.

For all the outstanding work the Times has done, I suspect that this won’t move anyone’s needle. If you’re a supporter of Clinton’s muscular approach to foreign policy, you’ll think this vindicates her. If you’re more inclined toward Obama’s non-interventionism (as I am), you’ll wonder why the president didn’t say no right from the start.

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At the Times, quoting the voices in their heads

What is the point of this pointless speculation in an otherwise straightforward piece on U.S. raids in Libya and Somalia, New York Times?

With President Obama locked in a standoff with Congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for a policy reversal in Syria, the raids could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory.

No sourcing. But if anyone in the Republican Party were to go there, it might be House Speaker John Boehner. Well, here’s Boehner on ABC’s “This Week”:

I’m very confident that both of these efforts were successful. I’m going to congratulate all of those in the U.S. intelligence operations, our troops, FBI, all those who were involved.

Listen, the threat of al Qaeda and their affiliates remains. And America has continued to be vigilant. And this is a great example of our dedicated forces on the security side, intelligence side, and our military and their capability to track these people down.

What was the Times thinking? Or to put it another way: Why weren’t they thinking?

Fact-checking the fact-checkers on an “act of terror”

In claiming that President Obama was not fully truthful last night regarding when he said he labeled the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror,” the fact-checkers are adopting as their own the manner in which Gov. Mitt Romney wants to frame it. The attack claimed several American lives, including that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

When the exchange took place, Romney appeared to be wildly, extravagantly wrong in claiming it took Obama two weeks to utter those words. He never fully regained his composure after moderator Candy Crowley read a transcript in which Obama, in a Rose Garden address the day after the attack, spoke of it in the context of “acts of terror.”

And it turns out that Obama said it again two days later: “I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.”

Hard to be much clearer than that. Yet look at how some of the leading fact-checkers handled it.

PolitiFact, on Obama’s insistence that he labeled it an “act of terror” right from the beginning: “Obama described it in those terms the day after the attack. But in the days that followed, neither he nor all the members of his administration spoke consistently on the subject. There were many suggestions that the attack was part of demonstrations over an American-made video that disparaged Islam. We rate the statement Half True.”

FactCheck.org, on Romney’s claim that it took Obama withheld the terrorism label for two weeks: “Romney isn’t entirely wrong. Romney claimed Obama refused for two weeks after the Benghazi attack to call it a terrorist attack and, instead, blamed it on a spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Muslim video that earlier that day triggered a violent protest in Egypt.”

The Washington Post: “Romney’s broader point is accurate — that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad. (The reporting is contradictory on whether there was indeed a demonstration outside the mission.) By our count, it took eight days for an administration official to concede that the deaths in Libya were the result of a ‘terrorist attack.'”

It’s pretty easy to see what’s going on here. Romney has attempted to frame the issue as though any suggestions from the White House that the attack may have had something to do with the inflammatory video “Innocence of the Muslims” are incompatible with Obama’s statements that the attack was an “act of terror.”

But why should that be so? Why are they mutually exclusive? Obama said from the start that the attack was an “act of terror,” he repeated it and he hasn’t wavered on it. The administration has wavered on what role the video might have played. It’s worth noting that the New York Times, which had people on the ground in Benghazi, stands by its reporting that the anger stirred up by the video actually did play into the attack. The terrorist attack, if you will.

The administration’s response to the Benghazi attack has not been a shining moment, and Romney had plenty to work with. So it was obviously a huge mistake on Romney’s part for him instead to dwell on whether and when Obama labeled it an “act of terror” rather than focusing on the reasons for the security breakdown and shifting explanations for what went wrong.

But thanks to the fact-checkers’ genetic disposition to throw a bone to each side regardless of the truth, Romney’s mistake looks less damaging today than it did last night.

Photo (cc) by Cain and Todd Benson and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The dictator’s last stand

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, speaking on Libyan state television. (Via Global Voices Online, which is compiling tweets about his speech.)