NEW YORK – For all the choppy waters of unemployment, foreclosure and soaring
debt that have buffeted US President Barack Obama’s re-election efforts, foreign
policy was one realm where he enjoyed smooth sailing for almost all of the 2012
All of it up until September 11, when militants in Benghazi,
Libya killed four American diplomats, including the first US ambassador to be
assassinated since 1979.
After months of polls consistently showing Obama
winning on national security, his competitor Mitt Romney suddenly had a line of
Republican members of Congress seized upon the opening with
hearings exploring whether the administration had been negligent before and
after the attack. And the GOP nominee himself has gone after the president on
Libya from the campaign trail.
Just over one month later, on October 16, the tide
turned. At Tuesday night’s debate
, Obama mitigated what is currently his biggest foreign policy liability in response to a question on the very subject.
to the president was anything but friendly. A member of the audience, Kerry
Ladka, rose at the town hall-style debate to ask about the State
Department’s refusal to provide extra security that had been requested for
American staff in Libya.
“Who was it that denied enhanced security, and
why?” he asked the president, echoing critics of the administration.
by the end of the ensuing exchange, Obama had outmaneuvered Romney.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts,
accused Obama of not labeling the Benghazi incident an act of terror until two
weeks after it happened, but Obama replied that he had immediately called it
“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and
I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly
what happened, that this was an act of terror,” Obama said.
presidential candidates then engaged in a back-and-forth over whether that was
true, with Romney expressing incredulity and Obama telling him to check the
The Rose Garden transcript records that Obama said, “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.” Obama was
speaking in the context of the Benghazi killings, but also the 9/11
His words left enough room for Republicans to claim Romney was
correct, but the debate moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, called it for Obama as
the candidates continued to drag out the argument.
“He did call it an act
of terror,” she said.
She added, “It did, as well, take two weeks or so
for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out.”
But the perception was that the essential point had been scored by Obama, and the
exchange was frequently cited in post-debate analysis as a strong moment for
Obama and even a turning point in the debate.
There were other reasons
Obama was seen as having won the debate (46 percent to 39% in a CNN poll and 37%
to 30% in a CBS survey).
For one, he came back to life and took the
offensive after a lackluster first outing. He also pounded Romney on vulnerable
points, like his statements about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income
And Romney did some of his own damage – offering the twitterati the
image of “binders full of women,” for example.
On Libya, Obama also offered a clear
acceptance of fault – even though US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
had taken responsibility ahead of the debate – that could help defuse the
“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she
works for me. I’m the president, and I’m always responsible,” Obama
And to accusations from Romney that Obama blamed the deaths in Libya on an anti-Muslim video in
place of acknowledging resurgent terror activity, the president offered one of
his most impassioned lines of the evening.
“The suggestion that anybody
on my team… would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own,
governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do,” he stressed.
what I do as president. That’s not what I do as
Next Monday’s debate, the final one before the
November 6 vote, is slated to focus entirely on foreign policy, so Romney will
have a chance to hit Obama on the topic of the violence in Libya again – perhaps even to retry the issue
of whether Obama called it a terror attack in the Rose Garden.
also tried out other prongs of attack he will likely return to next week when he
argued Tuesday night that the incident had broader implications for Obama’s
Middle East policy.
“This calls into question the president’s whole
policy in the Middle East,” Romney said, describing that strategy as “unraveling
before our very eyes.”
“Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in
Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel,” he
“We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb.”
it is clear that the foreign policy issue that has most captured the American
public in recent weeks, as the campaign draws to a close, is the Libya incident – it was the
sole foreign policy question asked by a member of the audience Tuesday.
With the answer,
a foreign policy advantage Romney briefly enjoyed was likely wiped out.