- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
In his second debate with Governor Romney, President Obama tried to convey the idea that his administration had treated the raid on the Benghazi consulate as if it were terrorism from the start. This was a hard sell to anyone who listened to the administration’s messaging on Libya over the past month, but many Obama supporters seem inclined to buy it.
I don’t buy it, but I am proud to say that I predicted it, several weeks ago.
Here is how I sketched out the evolution of the Obama administration’s actual messaging, and the rationale behind it. I think it stands up pretty well (unlike most other things you write, I hear the pseudonymous trolls telling me) some two-plus weeks later:
"Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:
Initial reports were confusing (initial reports are always confusing) and left open myriad possibilities, ranging from the fairly benign (Youtube-inspired hooligans got out of control) to the most malignant (Zawahiri exacted his revenge).
Romney’s initial messaging on the 9/11 anniversary attacks went over poorly and the media outrage, partly real and partly manufactured, eclipsed coverage of the underlying attacks.
The Obama team did everything they could to keep the media focus on Romney’s stumbles. Partly this involved tut-tutting about what Romney said, but mostly this required not feeding an alternate storyline that indicated the attacks might have been linked to a resurgent Al Qaeda. They could accomplish the latter simply by repeating what was known — there was a lot of Youtube-inspired hooliganism — and keeping quiet about anything that might simply be suspected, even as those suspicions grow stronger and stronger.
The Obama team also responded in typical campaign mode: They protected the candidate and did not say anything that would raise doubts about Obama’s foreign policy and national security prowess until the facts accumulated to the point where some concession was necessary. At that point, they conceded the minimum and insisted on waiting until the outcome of a (hopefully lengthy) investigation that (again hopefully) will not report out until well past election day.
The Obama team was bolstered in steps 3 and 4 by one further factor: wishful thinking. As David Ignatius spells out so clearly: "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world." In the language of political science, the Obama team had a strong motivated bias that colored the way they interpreted ambiguous data. They were receptive to information that reinforced what they wanted to believe and viewed with suspicion and skepticism information that challenged this view.
Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:
Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.
Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.
Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks."
Obama got to the "eventual message" in the town hall debate, and then built a firewall around it with self-righteous outrage at the suggestion he would ever play politics with national security. I think he is there to stay. Unless the moderator challenges him, I would be surprised if Obama provided a more candid response at the upcoming foreign policy debate.