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Presidential debate 101: When did Obama label Libya attack 'terror'?

In a narrow sense, Mitt Romney was wrong when he said at the presidential debate that Obama took weeks to describe the consulate attack in Libya as an act of 'terror.' But in a larger sense, Romney isn’t wrong.

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OK, that’s the set-up. Going back and looking at the transcript ourselves, Ms. Crowley was right. The day after the deadly assault the president stood outside at the White House and among other things said that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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Plus, Obama repeated variations of this line at two fundraisers the next day. So, in a narrow sense, Romney was wrong. The word “terror” was part of Obama’s language about the attack from the first.

But in a larger sense Romney isn’t wrong. It took weeks for the administration to state clearly that the attack was a particular act of terrorism carried out by radical Islamists. Crowley made this point during the debate, too, but it got overshadowed by the reaction to Romney bungling the attack.

Crowley clarified this in interviews following the Hofstra rumble. For a long time, administration officials kept insisting that the attack was the outgrowth of protests about a US-made anti-Islamic video, she said on CNN afterward. References to “terror” were general, and details were vague.

Romney “was right in the main. I just think he picked the wrong word,” said Crowley.

For instance, during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” on Sept. 25, Obama himself declined an opportunity to label the assault as terrorism. He said instead that “there is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action.”

Evidence now points to an organized attack by heavily armed members of a local Islamic militia.

Finally, we’ll take this a step further: Is arguing over word choice missing the point? You call it “terror,” I call it “potato” – the real issue is why the US did not see the attack coming and move to prevent it. Was there intelligence chatter about a possible attack tied to the date Sept. 11? Why didn’t the ambassador have more security guards? What do we know about the motivations of the attackers? (According to New York Times interviews with locals, for instance, the militia in question was indeed outraged over the anti-Muslim video.)

That’s a larger and more important argument to get into. And what do you know – there’s another debate next week that focuses on foreign policy. We bet this subject comes up. Quickly.

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