Memo to Obama and Romney: leave the Benghazi terror attack alone

Giles Whittell

In the end it was about jabs, not jobs. Mitt Romney did a reasonable job of jabbing Barack Obama about the 23 million Americans who are unemployed and the difference between the current 7.8 per cent jobless rate and the 5.4 per cent rate that Obama once promised. But that probably won’t swing the swing voters Romney still needs to swing his way, especially in Ohio.

Unemployment is the elephant in the great American electoral room, but it has been factored into this very polarised race for months now – and anyway, the trend line is not heading in a helpful direction for Romney. So something much stranger and more marginal now dominates the continuing spinalysis of the second presidential debate: who said what about the assassination of a US ambassador in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Both sides have messed this up. Both should leave it alone.

To summarise: on September 11 this year, Romney pounced on the condemnation by the US embassy in Cairo of an anti-Muslim film, thought then to have triggered the Benghazi attack, as evidence of an apologetic US foreign policy. Immediately the White House pounced on Romney for playing politics with dead diplomats. On the 12th, Obama said no acts of terror would shake American resolve. For the next two weeks, Administration officials resisted calling it an act of terror, preferring the anti-anti-Muslim film demonstration-got-out-of-hand (AAMFDGOOH) explanation. Team Romney, desperate for an angle of attack on Obama’s otherwise irritatingly impressive counter-terrorism credentials, sensed one at last. So last night Romney said Obama hadn’t actually called the murder an act of terror for 14 days.

Cue Obama: “Get the transcript.”

The bottom line is that Romney goofed in the debate. Obama came near as dammit to calling the attack an act of terror. This was not worth parsing. And the bigger Romney line that the Benghazi murders and a Syrian civil war is somehow an unravelling of American foreign policy is nonsense.

But the Obama Administration has goofed too. There was never anything wrong with calling an act of terror an act of terror. There was never anything to be gained by preferring the AAMFDGOOH explanation. The right response was to say “we’re not sure” until they were sure.

So. Memo to both sides: of course, regrettably, acts of terror will continue even though bin Laden is dead. Memo to Romney foreign policy advisors: bin Laden is dead. Get over it.

Read more: Debate analysis and audio dispatches from Times US correspondents

Notes

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