Our View

Getting the story straight on Libya

By From page A10 | October 05, 2012

The issue: Our confused response to the tragedy complicated important assessments that are under way

In the public relations business there is said to be a maxim for handling disasters: Get the information out right, get it out first and get it out your way.

IF THAT FIRST RULE is botched, the other two don’t much matter, and the Obama administration is paying the political price for that in its handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who grew up in Davis, and three other embassy employees.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, three possible explanations surfaced: It was a spontaneous reaction to a video Muslims considered blasphemous originating in the United States; a terrorist group opportunistically used those demonstrations as spontaneous cover to attack the consulate; or the attack was carefully planned by known and well-organized groups of Islamic extremists.

In the week following the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice offered the first explanation; the secretaries of Defense and State, the White House press secretary and the president of Libya said flatly it was a terrorist attack; and President Barack Obama, ever cautious, initially said extremists used the video as an excuse to attack the consulate, perhaps overlooking the symbolic importance of the date — 9/11.

Given the initial — and short-lived — uncertainty about the origin of the attacks, the confused response by the administration is perhaps understandable but hardly encouraging.

IN NORMAL TIMES, a dispassionate congressional investigation would be in order, but in the current climate that’s not going to happen. An FBI investigative team is on the ground in Libya but is being held back because of security considerations. Presumably, Pentagon and State Department assessments are under way.

And it is reassuring that ordinary Libyans tried desperately to rescue and revive Stevens; that the attack was followed by pro-U.S. demonstrations; and that Libyan President Mohammed el-Megaref was deeply apologetic and reportedly is carrying out his promise to crack down on extremist groups.

Predictably, the Romney campaign sought political advantage from the lethal attacks, finally a chance to attack Obama on his foreign policy strong suit. Typically, the GOP response was devoid of details and specifics. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on Sunday that Obama’s foreign policy was “unraveling.” And “so what Mitt Romney is going to do is lay out a very different vision for foreign policy, one that is a policy of American strength versus what I would claim (is) one of weakness.”

MEANWHILE, our spooks and special operations forces have become extremely adept at exacting revenge in cases like this. Congress should keep this in mind when it talks so casually about dismembering the defense budget.

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