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Libya Has Become The Flash Point Of Foreign Policy Debate

An empty bullet shell in the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 13, after the attack on the building late on Sept. 11, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
Gianluigi Guercia
AFP/Getty Images
An empty bullet shell in the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 13, after the attack on the building late on Sept. 11, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

In the end, it's an argument about competence.

The Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11 killings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has become a staple of the campaign. It's bound to come up again during Monday's debate about foreign policy.

Mitt Romney will use the event — which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens — to question President Obama's veracity and his handling of foreign policy in general.

"We know that Benghazi will be re-litigated on Monday night," Kerry Healey, who served as Romney's lieutenant governor in Massachusetts and is a senior adviser to his campaign, said on Fox News Thursday. "You know that terrorism and whether or not this administration has been effective is going to come up."

Still, there's no sign that most Americans see Benghazi as a decisive issue. Polls show the voting public cares far more about the economy than national security as a whole — let alone Libya or this incident in particular.

In a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the administration's handling of the incident, compared with 35 percent who approved. A notably high number — 27 percent — said they had no opinion.

"I don't think it's as big an issue as some of the rhetoric is making it out to be," says Dina Smeltz, a senior fellow on public opinion at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "A lot of people aren't following it, and even if they are, it's a little bit in the weeds, arguing about who used what word at what time."

As with the incident itself, the campaign debate about Benghazi has become a confusing mix of contradictory accounts.

For a couple of weeks after the event, administration officials seemed to put much of the blame on an anti-Muslim video, which triggered riots in Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Romney and other Republicans say the Obama administration was not forthright about what happened, failing to treat it as a planned terrorist attack or label it as such.

"Whether there was something misleading or instead we just didn't know what happened, I think you have to ask yourself why we didn't know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations [Susan Rice] went on TV to say that this was a demonstration," Romney said during last Tuesday's debate. "How could we have not known?"

Republicans have also accused Obama of being insensitive to the deaths, having described them and Middle East upheaval in general last month as "bumps in the road."

Then Thursday on Comedy Central's Daily Show, Obama said this — "If four Americans get killed, it is not optimal" — in response to host Jon Stewart's characterization of the administration response to Benghazi as "not optimal."

For its part, the Obama campaign has complained since the very day of the attack that Romney has been seeking to politicize a tragedy. Administration and campaign officials have noted that congressional Republicans, for all their complaints about inadequate security, had been eager to cut the State Department's security budget.

On Friday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released State Department communications related to the incident. Foreign Policy reported that the release, according to unnamed Obama administration officials, "compromised the identities of several Libyans working with the U.S. government and placed their lives in danger." The documents were described as sensitive, but not classified.

The president himself said during the last debate that he found Romney's accusations that his administration played politics with the incident "offensive."

The discussion about Benghazi during the debate has itself become a point of argument, with some Republicans unhappy about moderator Candy Crowley's live fact check of Romney's characterization of Obama's remarks.

All of this back and forth makes it difficult for many people to understand who is right or even what happened.

But just the fact that the waters have become so muddy may prove damaging to Obama, says Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University. "If it all comes out in the wash — that they're all a bunch of finger-pointers — that still hurts Obama on the margin," he says.

It takes off a bit of the sheen the president has enjoyed on national security issues — unusual for a Democrat — thanks to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the end of the U.S. military role in Iraq.

Obama will no doubt highlight those aspects of his record during the debate Monday. Some observers argue he should try to reframe the argument about Libya itself in terms of its larger context — including the U.S. role in helping oust longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"We tend to look at all the incidents and say it's all chaos. But the government [there] is starting to find some traction," says Dirk Vandewalle, an expert on Libya at Dartmouth College. "I still think Libya in the end is a success, moving very slowly toward a political system that will largely be democratic."

Romney doesn't see it that way, suggesting that the Benghazi killings are emblematic of instability throughout North Africa and the Middle East and what he's termed the "unraveling" of Obama's foreign policy in the region.

But many thought the president got the better of their exchange on the issue during the last debate, speaking soberly about his responsibility in greeting the caskets when they came home. He may continue to argue that Romney is seeking to exploit a dangerous situation.

It may be the best ammunition Romney has. Despite their rhetorical differences, Romney has not staked out significantly different positions from Obama in areas such as drawing down troops in Afghanistan or seeking to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Libya actually ranks below Iran and the size of the defense budget in terms of public concerns about national security, says Gelpi, an expert on foreign policy opinion.

But that doesn't mean it won't take up lots of oxygen during Monday's debate.

"It seems like it's going to get a lot of airtime because in terms of foreign policy, there's not a lot to talk about what these two guys," Gelpi says. "Their foreign policy isn't that different."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.