How Mitt Romney's Libya Narrative is Collapsing Under the Weight of Reality

Election '16

When news of the September 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that killed four Americans reached the Republican Party, they smelled blood. With Mitt Romney leading the rabid right out of the gate, the GOP concocted a self-serving narrative of American fecklessness and weakness under the Obama administration--a far cry from the reality of the aggressive foreign policy undertaken by President Obama. The right’s narrative has only escalated over the past month, but it is beginning to crumble under the weight of the complicated truth.

The right’s main charge has been to accuse the Obama administration of apologizing for American values and lying about the nature of the attack--essentially, “covering up” the Benghazi assault. But new information emerging paints a much more complicated picture--one that bears little resemblance to the narrative the GOP has written.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come out and said that she “take[s] responsibility” for the security of diplomatic outposts around the world. “I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals,” said Clinton, who blamed the “fog of war” for the government's shifting explanations for the attack.

The Obama administration reacted to the attacks in Libya which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and fthree consular officers by initially pointing to the anti-Muslim video that had sparked protests across the Middle East. The video, the “Innocence of Muslims,” led to the U.S. embassy in Cairo being overrun and angry protests in Tunisia that culminated in the looting of an American school.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed this narrative during her September 16 appearances on major news shows. Rice claimed that, “based on the information we have at present,” the attack on the embassy was a “spontaneous” reaction to the anti-Muslim video. Rice also said that there were protests in Libya which were “hijacked” by “extremists who came with heavier weapons.”

But when a government official acknowledged that the attack may have been a terrorist attack and CBS reported that there were no protests in Libya over the video, the right went into high gear.

Various GOP officials and Romney campaign surrogates have pushed the line that the Obama administration has “covered up” the real nature of what happened in Benghazi. One of Paul Ryan’s main line of attacks during the vice presidential debate last week concerned Libya.

“They sent the U.N. ambassador out to say that this was because of a protest and a YouTube video,” said Ryan, implying that the attack had nothing to do with the video.

But now, the New York Times’ reporting has knocked down some of the right’s key arguments. An article in the Times reports that Libyans who witnessed the assault say that they “struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video.”

While there is no definitive account of what exactly happened yet, this report points to the fact that Libyans on the ground also believed the attack was related to the video.

Another line of attack was that the administration didn’t focus on the terrorist angle of it, and downplayed Al Qaeda’s involvement in the attacks. But President Obama did call the assault an “act of terror” the day after the attack. As for the Al Qaeda claims, the definition of who counts as a member of the terrorist group is hazy.

The New York Times reporting on this question leaves more questions than answers--but again, the right-wing’s black-and-white narrative on this question is not holding up. Libyan witnesses suspect that Ansar al-Shariah, a Libyan militant group, was behind the attack. The Times notes that “whether the attackers are labeled ‘Al Qaeda cells’...depends on whether that label can be used as a generic term for a broad spectrum of Islamist militants.”

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher further expounds on this issue. “The question of whether these Libyans are part of al-Qaeda is a remarkably sticky one, in part because we don’t seem to yet have a rigorous definition for who counts as al-Qaeda in the first place,” writes Fisher.

Yet another right-wing claim is that the U.S. government ignored requests for more security in Libya due to the threat of Islamist extremists in the country, a threat that has proliferated after the U.S.-backed removal of Muammar Gaddafi.

During the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden said, “we weren't told they wanted more security there.” The Romney campaign pounced on this statement and accused the vice president of misleading the American people.

But it is true that Biden wouldn’t have personally known about requests for security at an embassy in Libya. And the requests that did come in were focused on Tripoli--not Benghazi.

The requests “were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away,” according to the New York Times.

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