The term “fog of war” refers to the confusion that often exists in any military-type confrontation. It might be applied as well to the Sept. 11 attack on an American diplomatic outpost in Libya. In assaults on the consulate in Benghazi, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a brave diplomat who had worked hard at understanding the country and trying to do the right thing, was killed along with three other Americans.
President Obama initially referred to “an act of terror,” although he stopped short of using the term terrorism. Then Obama administration officials said the attacks were in protest of an anti-Muslim video circulating in social media. Since then, the administration has seemed in search of a coherent explanation, finally acknowledging that extremist groups apparently took part in planned assaults.
In his last debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the president emphasized the terror angle but vowed that he was working to get the whole story not just of what happened but why.
Romney can be expected to hammer the Libya issue in tomorrow night’s final presidential campaign debate, which is to focus on foreign policy. Obama might note Republican cuts in State Department security funding.
Make no mistake: The president is responsible for explaining to the American people the causes of the deadly protest, for identifying any failures in judgment or intelligence collection and for acting to ensure that other diplomats are not similarly at risk. It is a fair topic for Romney to raise.
But it would be simplistic of Romney to dwell on this episode. There appears to be no simple explanation of the causes of the attacks, and Libya is inherently an unstable and dangerous place. Could the Americans have been better protected? Perhaps, but Stevens had traveled widely and surely knew he was in harm’s way.
There are many such places in the world, which is why the foreign policy debate has to focus also on Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, Russia, China, North Korea – in short, the discussion must be global, because America’s interests in its own security and financial stability are more important and intense than ever in the lands far beyond U.S. borders.
All presidents come to appreciate the complexity of dealing with countries that are maddening in their behavior toward their own people and others, but must necessarily be part of a dialogue with the U.S. Another lesson all presidents learn, often on the job, is that events, sometimes violent ones, that happen suddenly are not always what they seem.
A president must act not just in retaliation, but with consideration for the long-term consequences of decisions, in terms of the impact on this country and others. Sometimes, that means investigating and waiting, even when one’s political opponents are sounding off.