SAN DIEGO — “Go easy on Benghazi.”
That was the unsolicited piece of advice that Mitt Romney got before the final presidential debate on foreign policy. It looks like he took it, despite the fact the advice came from someone who supports his opponent.
Bill Keller, New York Times columnist and that newspaper’s former executive editor, describes himself as “a qualified admirer of President Obama’s foreign policy” which he called “reactive and rarely inspiring, but judicious and flexible.” By contrast, Keller says Romney “shows little instinct for a dangerously complex world.”
Still, “in the spirit of nonpartisanship,” Keller penned a column in which he reminded Romney that, in the second debate, the Republican was rapped on the knuckles for “playing political gotcha with a national tragedy.” Don’t do it again by bringing up the Benghazi attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three others, he suggested.
For some reason, Romney seems to have complied. He did tread lightly on the subject. In fact, too lightly. Questions needed to be asked, and Romney didn’t ask them.
This was a failure that has been compounded now that there are more questions about what happened, including who knew what and when they knew it.
Various media outlets have obtained emails sent from the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency to the White House Situation Room, two hours into the attack, explaining that the consulate was under siege. There was also evidence that a terror group was already claiming credit for the attack while it was still going on and not making any claim that the assault was sparked by an anti-Muslim video, as the White House and administration would insist for the next two weeks.
Romney’s grade on foreign policy
Moderator Bob Schieffer asked at the outset of the debate about Libya and said that questions remain—“What happened? What caused it? Was it spontaneous? Was it an intelligence failure? Was it a policy failure? Was there an attempt to mislead people about what really happened?” Romney responded with just one line about Benghazi.
He referred to “an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against—against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and—and minds go out to them.”
Obviously, Romney’s mind was on what had happened to him twice before—when he was roundly criticized for raising questions about the administration’s response too soon after the attack, and, in debate No. 2, when moderator Candy Crowley threw Obama a lifeline by backing up the president’s assertion that he had in fact, on the day, after the attack, referred to “acts of terror.”
Romney’s wimpy response set the tone for the rest of the debate. Here’s something that they may not teach at Harvard Business School: When you retreat, you lose.
Time and again, Obama took Romney to school—specifically, foreign affairs school — and not so gently reminded him just who is the commander in chief, who gets the briefings from the generals, and who gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden. He also reminded him which one of them has zero foreign policy experience, and whose opinions in that arena have been all over the map.
The president scored direct hits with verbal torpedoes like this, telling Romney: “I know that you haven’t been in a position to execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered a position, you’ve been wrong. … ”
Romney’s response displayed weakness and uncertainty, as he almost seemed to plead for mercy, telling Obama: “Attacking me is not an agenda.”
True. But Romney’s own agenda during the third debate should have been to point out the failures of the Obama foreign policy: In Iran, where the president didn’t lift a finger to support the Green Revolution as insurgents were being slaughtered; in Mexico, where the administration’s reckless “Fast and Furious” program allowed guns to go south of border and into the hands of drug traffickers resulting in the killing of more Mexicans; and in Israel, where Obama has let his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deteriorate to such a level that it’s hard to imagine how it could ever be repaired. There was plenty of ammunition.
Over the last four years, Obama has failed the foreign policy test. But at least he showed up for the exam. Romney blew it off.