Obama Miscalculated Politics of Terrorism
By Chris Stirewalt Power Play Published September 28, 2012
“It’s a cavalcade of obstacles right now.”
-- A “senior American law enforcement official” talking to the New York Times about the fact that the scene of a successful terrorist attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya is too dangerous for FBI agents to visit.
Today in Iraq, there was a massive prison break in which dozens of baddies broke out of a prison in Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The inmates, including suspected al Qaeda members, took control of the prison and then shot their way out, leaving 10 guards dead.
The scariest part of the proposition is that al Qaeda members on the outside may have helped their comrades pull it off.
This is bad news for the West in general as it shows another sign of al Qaeda regaining a foothold in the Middle East after many years in decline. Just as prior to the U.S.-led war on the organization that began after the 9/11 attacks, the organization is finding weak, wicked or unstable countries in which to operate.
But this is also bad news for the re-election hopes of President Obama, who has pinned his re-election strategy on a three-point argument: Republican nominee Mitt Romney is a scoundrel unfit for the office and, as Vice President Joe Biden often says, Usama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.
Leaving aside the fact that General Motors is still on federal life support, the argument is a potent one.
The daring raid that killed bin Laden was the high point of Obama’s term. While he had greater accomplishments, particularly his more than $1 trillion in stimulus measures, his 2010 health law and a massive package of bank regulations, those things were mostly unpopular. Killing the most hated man in what was once known as Christendom is all upside.
This perception of Obama as the vanquisher of al Qaeda was not only reinforced by the president’s frequent mentions of it but by leaks from the administration that cast Obama as a philosopher/warrior contemplating a kill list for his armada of drones and weighing carefully his power of life and death over his enemies.
The only times Obama has much talked about radical Islamist terrorism in the campaign, he has sought to reinforce the notion that the war is won and he won it. He promises constant vigilance, but suggests that the season of anxiety for the nation is over.
Imagine then, the alarm that rose within Team Obama when on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, terrorists pulled off a daring, successful attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the American ambassador and three others.
Thanks to the reporting of FOX News colleague Bret Baier, we now know that the administration had evidence that the killings were part of a terrorist attack. For Islamists to have pulled off such as strike on Sept. 11 was bad enough. That they did it in a nation where NATO had just installed a new government was worse.
After months of vouching for the ascendant Islamist movement across the region as moderate and peaceful, the president found his own ambassador killed at the hands of Islamists.
Compounding the problem for Obama was that he was already feeling a squeeze of foreign policy. It had been reported that the president wasn’t taking most of his daily intelligence briefings in person, preferring to read a written report on his iPad. Meanwhile, Republicans and Israelis were ramping up the pressure on the president to take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear program and the theocracy’s ally in Syria.
This was not a helpful time to have al Qaeda suddenly show itself capable of such a brazen attack, especially if the administration did not take adequate steps to prepare for such a strike – especially not in an election year.
The public response from the president and his team was to not discuss the attack but instead focus on a internet clip of a never-made movie that mocked the founder of Islam, Mohammed. The picture painted by Team Obama was of downtrodden Muslims understandably offended by such blasphemy being whipped into a violent frenzy by opportunists, with the rioters being sort of the bitter clingers of Cairo and Benghazi.
But after more than a week of focusing on the film and not the attack – including a stunning turn by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on the Sunday shows – the administration began opening the door to the existence of an Islamist plot and a deliberate attack. The word was getting out and it was time to get ahead of the issue.
But it was too late. As details began to emerge, officials scrambled to show their tough-minded stance on terrorism. The White House press secretary, the secretaries of State and Defense and others all stood up. But not the president, from whose lips the T word have never passed when it comes to the Libya attack.
When talking to female voters while being “eye candy” on daytime chat shows or addressing world leaders at the U.N., the president instead continued to focus on the YouTube clip, denouncing it as a provocation as well as the response of the provoked. After all, if all the Islamist warriors have been killed by SEALs or drones or scattered to the four corners of the earth, how could there be an attack by Islamist warriors?
But in trying to duck and cover on the nature of the attack, the president has worsened and prolonged his political discomfort on the issue. Rather than stepping out early on to show his command and control, the president is left trying to explain the gaps and lapses in the story he and his team told.
His decision to diminish the attack may have looked like a smart political move at the time, but it is proving to be a serious miscalculation.
Whether it’s the Libya debacle, the prison break in Iraq, the slaughter in Syria or Iran’s nuclear defiance, there are lots of signs now that things are heading the wrong way in the Middle East. And it’s happening as the president makes his closing argument that America is stronger and more respected abroad than when he took office.
These problems go not only to the argument on foreign policy but also Obama’s claims on transparency and vigilance. And it’s a most unfortunate moment to have such a scandal.