Benghazi and tonight's presidential debate

Michael Petrou on the issues Obama will and should face in tonight's debate

Barack Obama enters tonight’s debate on foreign policy in decent shape. As of July, voters perceived him as stronger than Mitt Romney when it comes to defending America from terrorism; foreign policy in general; and judgment in a crisis.

Though these numbers may have changed in the last three months, Obama, I think, enjoys some of the lustre that comes from being the commander-in-chief. But his record abroad is uneven.

Let’s start with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — because that’s where Obama will start and finish tonight. Someone needs to remind the President that he wasn’t on the helicopter that flew into Abbottabad. He made a risky decision that paid off. It was the right call, and he deserves credit it for it. The bravery — and while we’re at it, can someone please tell Joe Biden this? — was shown by the commandos on the mission, not Barack Obama.

America’s ability to pull off such a raid has been developing for years, beginning with the hunt-and-kill teams in Iraq that decimated al-Qaeda there during the later years of the Bush administration, and continues today in Afghanistan. This is the sort of tactical skill and reach that comes from being at war for 10 years. It has more to do with military experience than presidential vision.

On Afghanistan, Obama came into office believing it was the necessary war and made consequential investments. To those who dread our approaching abandonment of the country, Obama might have deserved praise for this. The problem is his resolve didn’t last.

By 2010, according to author and journalist David Sanger, the group of presidential aides charting Afghanistan policy came to be known informally as “Afghan Good Enough.” Good enough was no longer defeating the Taliban, building a nation, or protecting the Afghans who had — despite all the warnings of history — bet on Western staying power. They’ll be enslaved and slaughtered after we leave in 2014. But don’t worry. We won’t be around to notice.

On the Arab/Persian Spring, Obama was cautious and suffered for it. Iranians, braving death and gangs of government-backed Basiji thugs, chanted: “Obama! Obama! You’re either with us, or you’re with them!” Obama dodged the choice. He was, instead, with “the arc of the moral universe” — which apparently bends toward justice. This just might be true, but only if mortals put their shoulders to it.

It is noteworthy that in Egypt today 79 per cent of Egyptians hold unfavourable views of the United States, up from the 70 per cent who did so in 2009. Those who supported Hosni Mubarak feel Obama deserted a friend and ally; those who backed the revolution feel he was too slow to support a pro-democracy uprising.

Despite this, it is the Obama administration’s response to the raid in Benghazi, Libya, that may dominate the debate. Romney unwisely focused on when Obama first described the attack, which killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as an act of terror (almost immediately, it turns out). His volley backfired, and Romney withdrew. He’s unlikely to do so again tonight.

The more substantial issue on Benghazi concerns when Obama learned the attack was likely pre-planned, rather than the result of a spontaneous demonstration, and when he informed the American people of this. The latest reporting from the Wall Street Journal indicates Obama was told in his daily intelligence briefings that the attack grew out of a protest, for more than a week after Stevens was killed.

This blunts accusations that Obama knowingly misled Americans, but it also suggests poor intelligence gathering and dissemination. Conflicting reports regarding the attack were circulating at the same time Obama’s daily briefs were blaming American deaths on a demonstration that got out of hand.

These are important details, and they should and will be discussed and fought over tonight. A more substantial debate could be had on the war in Afghanistan, Syria, and what — if anything — the United States can do to shape how the newly democratizing Middle East will evolve.

It’s often said that foreign policy doesn’t matter in elections. I’m not sure that’s ever really the case. It shouldn’t be this time around.

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