In an election likely to be decided on economic issues, Romney’s move into foreign policy has stirred tensions within his campaign. But it has also put in play an issue — management of foreign policy — on which Obama once held a commanding lead.
The presidential debate Tuesday, however, again showed the perils that Romney faces in using the Libya attack to go after the president’s leadership abroad.
He mistakenly said Obama took weeks to call the Benghazi assault “an act of terror,” even though, as moderator Candy Crowley pointed out, the president used those words in a statement he made from the Rose Garden a day after the attack.
“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 said at the time. At another point in the remarks, he called the attack “outrageous and shocking,” although he refrained from using the term “terrorism” to describe it directly.
The Romney campaign contended immediately after the debate that Obama continues to offer confusing accounts of what happened in Benghazi, and the candidates’ angry exchange over Libya provided no new facts to clarify how and why the attack took place.
Before the debate, Romney spoke often about Libya, arguing that it would remain important for national security reasons, not political ones, because of the gravity of what happened. Obama’s alleged delay in using the word “terror” to describe the attack became part of Romney’s stump speech.
“It’s an issue because this is the first time in 33 years that a United States ambassador has been assassinated,” Romney told an audience in North Carolina last week. “Mr. President, this is an issue because we were attacked successfully by terrorists on the anniversary of Sept. 11. President Obama, this is an issue because Americans wonder why it was it took so long for you and your administration to admit that this was a terrorist attack.”
The Obama administration has offered shifting explanations for how Stevens and the three other Americans were killed, attributing the deaths variously to an attack that emerged from demonstrations over a YouTube video disparaging the prophet Muhammad and to a well-coordinated assault carried out by the al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa.
In arguing for his national security record, Obama has said his use of drones, intelligence and Special Operations forces against al-Qaeda’s leadership has left the group a shadow of its former self.