Everything You Need to Know About the Debate Exchange on Libya

Did President Obama call Benghazi an "act of terror" the next day? It's actually ambiguous -- and beside the point.

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In Tuesday's debate, the candidates clashed on whether, the day after the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed, President Obama described the attack on our consulate as an act of terror. Mitt Romney said it took him two weeks to do so. President Obama insists he used that language the next day, while making remarks in the Rose Garden. As you'll see later in this post, the truth is that the phrase "act of terror" was used in the Rose Garden. Was it specifically applied to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi? That's ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so -- these things are written with care. I'll show you what I mean about the ambiguity in a moment by quoting from the transcript at great length. But first an important comment.

Say for the sake of argument that Obama didn't apply the phrase "act of terror" to Libya for two weeks. What does pointing that out ultimately do for Romney? Are the American people really going to worry that reelecting Obama risks future terrorist attacks that aren't promptly labeled as such?

Is that a concern?

We've got bigger things to worry about ... unless the delay is indicative of a larger problem in the Obama Administration. It might highlights their lack of transparency, for example. But that isn't Romney's argument.

Team Romney wants everyone to think the larger problem is that Obama won't confront terrorism by name. That he is an appeaser. That we're being attacked as a result. But that is nonsense, and voters know it. They've known it all along. When Obama says he's going to do his best to track down and kill whoever attacked our consulate, voters believe him, as they should.

He will try to do just that.

So why doesn't Romney change his line of attack? Why doesn't he stop acting like the problem in Libya is what Obama said after the Benghazi attack, as opposed to what he did before the attack? 

Ross Douthat is wondering too.

As he notes, there are much stronger critiques that someone could make about Obama's Libya policy, the security vacuum it created, and the various ways that security vacuum threatens American interests. Perhaps Romney isn't making them because he too favored intervening at times?

Instead Romney focuses on the fact that Team Obama at first thought, or at least said, that Benghazi was the act of a crowd protesting a movie, and only later acknowledged that it was a premeditated terrorist attack. Romney is right about that. I criticized the Obama Administration on the same grounds. I just don't see why that particular criticism would change any voter minds.

As it turns out, Romney wasn't even able to prosecute that point, because he was apparently unaware that Obama used the words "act of terror" in his Rose Garden speech. Tripped up on that detail, and corrected by the moderator, he lost the exchange in the eyes of most viewers. But even had Romney more adeptly shown that Obama was slow getting accurate facts to the public, it wouldn't have mattered. Romney will fail on that issue because his larger narrative is wrong. Obama has lots of flaws. An unwillingness to confront acts of terrorism and terrorists isn't one of them.  

Okay, now to the transcript. Below are all the Rose Garden comments, with sections characterizing the attack boldfaced:

Good morning. Every day, all across the world, American diplomats and civilians work tirelessly to advance the interests and values of our nation. Often, they are away from their families. Sometimes, they brave great danger. Yesterday, four of these extraordinary Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi. Among those killed was our Ambassador, Chris Stevens, as well as Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith. We are still notifying the families of the others who were killed. And today, the American people stand united in holding the families of the four Americans in our thoughts and in our prayers.

The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. We're working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats. I've also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world. And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.

Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.

Already, many Libyans have joined us in doing so, and this attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya. Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans. Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety, and they carried Ambassador Stevens's body to the hospital, where we tragically learned that he had died.

It's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save. At the height of the Libyan revolution, Chris led our diplomatic post in Benghazi. With characteristic skill, courage, and resolve, he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries, and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya. When the Qaddafi regime came to an end, Chris was there to serve as our ambassador to the new Libya, and he worked tirelessly to support this young democracy, and I think both Secretary Clinton and I relied deeply on his knowledge of the situation on the ground there. He was a role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps.

Along with his colleagues, Chris died in a country that is still striving to emerge from the recent experience of war. Today, the loss of these four Americans is fresh, but our memories of them linger on. I have no doubt that their legacy will live on through the work that they did far from our shores and in the hearts of those who love them back home.

Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of ArlingtonCemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

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. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers. These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity. They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.

We grieve with their families, but let us carry on their memory, and let us continue their work of seeking a stronger America and a better world for all of our children.

Thank you. May God bless the memory of those we lost and may God bless the United   States of America.

As you can see, it's unclear whether Obama is applying the descriptor "acts of terror" to the attack on Benghazi or not. The killing of the ambassador is the subject of the whole speech. On the other hand, Obama had just mentioned the September 11 attacks, and could've been referring to them when he noted that America won't be shaken by acts of terror. It's impossible to tell.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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