President Obama appears to have made a choice. He has made two important statements regarding Benghazi to help him win a second term. Unfortunately for him and the country, those same two statements are also the seeds of destruction of that term.
When the president interjected at the debate that he had called the attacks at Benghazi "acts of terror," he put his personal involvement in the public disclosure of events there in play. Against his own claims to have known the assault was a terrorist attack and not a demonstration over an offensive video, every subsequent statement about the attack, including his own, must be measured.
Just two examples are damning. If the president knew it was a terrorist attack, then he deliberately misled the American public and the world by blaming the video in his speech at the United Nations on Sept. 25. He also allowed the statements of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, repeatedly blaming the video, to stand in stark contradiction to what we now understand he knew the day after the attack.
Despite these and many other contradictions, Mr. Obama chose the tactical benefit he gained at the debate over the many questions he would surely raise. With an assist from the moderator, Mr. Obama used this statement to throw Gov. Mitt Romney off his rhythm just as he was beginning to bear down on the president's and others' claim that the attack was caused by reaction to the video. At that moment, Mr. Obama stymied Mr. Romney's opportunity to confront him about these false claims.
Similarly, the president has now said that he ordered the military to do everything necessary to assist American personnel in Benghazi. We know that did not happen -- the secretary of defense has told us so -- as do the obvious facts on the ground. In this case, Mr. Obama chose to claim he issued an order, attempting to show his strength as a leader and leaving it until later to determine whether the failure to carry out his order was incompetence or insubordination.
The reaction is building. If Mr. Obama wins re-election, he will face an onslaught of inquiries from lawmakers. Congress and the public should take a dim view of being misled about the deaths of our officials abroad. Misleading the public about these events right before an election is particularly galling. It does not take much imagination to see that blaming the video would avoid the real problem of failed American policy in Libya, poor decision-making about security there, or a breakdown (again) of our intelligence-gathering and dissemination process. Such a total collapse of U.S. policy and operations would be ruinous on the eve of an election. Deliberately misleading the public before the election will result in an even greater disaster for the president after the election.
As is often the case, the American people will tolerate policies that do not work. They will not tolerate being lied to about them.
J. Keith Ausbrook was general counsel of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and executive secretary of George W. Bush's Homeland Security Council.