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US says Libya attack was terrorism: Was it unprepared for Arab Spring fallout?

Now that the White House says a 'terrorist attack' struck the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, questions could arise about President Obama's Middle East policy in the wake of the Arab Spring.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2012

Libyan women protest against Ansar al-Shariah Brigades and other Islamic militias in front of the Tebesty Hotel, in Benghazi, Libya, Friday. The attack that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans has sparked a backlash among frustrated Libyans against the heavily armed gunmen, including Islamic extremists, who run rampant in their cities. More than 10,000 people poured into a main boulevard of Benghazi, demanding that militias disband.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

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Washington

After a week of hesitation, the White House now says it is “self-evident” that a “terrorist attack,” and not just a spontaneous reaction from a furious mob, struck the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week.

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The characterization is important, because it opens the door to the conclusion that the attack was a preplanned assault, resulting in the deaths of four US diplomats, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

The repercussions of declaring that the Benghazi attack was a planned terrorist assault on the United States would be extensive. For starters, it would raise questions about the Obama administration’s precautions in a volatile region and its preparedness for anti-US strikes in an area known to harbor Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist elements.

More broadly, it could call into question President Obama’s Middle East policy in the wake of the Arab awakening. Some Republican critics are already tarring the policy as too weak and dismissive of the threats that the region’s tumult presents.

Far from clarifying the situation, the White House characterization of the Benghazi attack as self-evidently a terrorist attack only muddies the waters further, some foreign-policy experts say.

“I heard that phrase, and I thought, what do they mean? Are they using ‘self-evident’ as kind of a throwaway phrase to say, “Well, this was a situation where violence was used with intent against a US facility”? Or are they saying, ‘We’ve got evidence that this was a preplanned event’?” says Wayne White, a former State Department official with experience in intelligence gathering in the Middle East. “It’s just not clear what this statement really says.”

On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, “It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” adding, “Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials.”

Later at a question-and-answer session in Miami organized by the Spanish-language TV network Univision, Mr. Obama emphasized that while many details are still unclear, it appeared that extremists had used protests resulting from outrage over an anti-Muslim video as an “excuse” to attack US interests.

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