Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “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.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.

Is It Really All About A Movie?

The party line from the Obama Administration is that the chaos in the Middle East is all about a cheap, crappy YouTube video.  On Friday White House spokesperson Jay Carney said, “this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy, this is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”

Is the rioting and embassy-storming really just the product of Muslim rage at an incendiary video?  Mounting evidence suggests that the Administration story line is just wishful thinking.  The carefully coordinated, well-armed attack on the poorly defended U.S. consulate in Benghazi doesn’t seem like the spontaneous response of Libyans to a video, but rather a pre-planned terrorist act.  A writer for the Jerusalem Post argues — persuasively, in my view — that much larger forces than offensive videos are at play and that American foreign policy seems to be based on imaginative fictions rather than reality.

The Obama Administration needs to take a careful look at what really happened in Benghazi and Cairo and what is really motivating the people who brought heavy weapons to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and seemed to good intelligence about where the American Ambassador was staying and where he would be moved.  Now is not a time for phony spin or false bravado.  Foreign policy isn’t a game; the lives of American diplomats, their families, and their staff demand a clear-eyed, careful appraisal of reality.  Perhaps it’s time to stop hunting for video makers and start looking for an effective way to deal with a so-called “Arab spring” that appears to have morphed into anti-American totalitarianism.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly

The more we learn about the deadly attacks on our diplomatic installations in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya, the more questions arise.  Those questions need to be answered — and quickly.

Was the attack in Benghazi really just a spur-of-the-moment response to an obscure, homemade movie posted on the internet, or was it a planned, coordinated attack by a trained group of well-armed men?  Why was the security at the Benghazi consulate so inadequate — on 9/11, of all days?  Were U.S. security forces really equipped with guns with no bullets?  Did the U.S. receive any intelligence that warned us that an attack might be forthcoming?  Why didn’t the State Department respond to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo by immediately increasing protection at our other diplomatic outposts in the Middle East?  Was there an intelligence leak that allowed the attackers in Benghazi to determine where the ambassador was?  How did the U.S. somehow lose track of where Ambassador Chris Stevens was during the attacks?  How much sensitive information was lost when the Benghazi consulate was overrun?

The Justice Department and FBI are investigating and the State Department now is declining to answer questions about what happened in Benghazi because it considers the situation “a crime scene.”  The State Department won’t talk, it says, until the Justice Department investigation is concluded.  In my view, that’s not acceptable.  The Benghazi incident wasn’t a domestic criminal act, it was a foreign affairs fiasco that resulted in the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years.  The decisions that produced the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans need to be examined publicly, not hidden behind the guise of a “criminal investigation.”  The Senate Homeland Security Committee apparently has called for hearings, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee should do likewise.  Those hearings should move forward quickly, so that we can determine how to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again.

What happened in Benghazi and Cairo, and more recently at other U.S. diplomatic missions elsewhere in the world, is not a political issue — it is a crucial, threshold matter of national sovereignty and national security that shouldn’t be swept under the rug or deferred because we are in the midst of a presidential campaign.  We need to promptly determine where we fell short and decide what the United States must do to be able to adequately protect its embassies and diplomats on foreign soil.