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The Curious Case of How Libya Became an Election Issue

How did a tragic but isolated incident at a US consulate, in a place few Americans had ever heard of, get blown up into a pivotal issue in a too-close-to-call presidential contest?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 12:29 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Who lost Libya? Indeed, who lost the entire Middle East? Those are the questions lurking behind the endless stream of headlines about "Benghazi-gate." Here's the question we should really ask, though: How did a tragic but isolated incident at a US consulate, in a place few Americans had ever heard of, get blown up into a pivotal issue in a too-close-to-call presidential contest?

My short answer: the enduring power of a foreign policy myth that will not die, the decades-old idea that America has an inalienable right to "own" the world and control every place in it. I mean, you can't lose what you never had.

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This campaign season teaches us how little has changed since the early Cold War days when Republican stalwarts screamed, "Who lost China?" More than six decades later, it's still surprisingly easy to fill the political air with anxiety by charging that we've "lost" a country or, worse yet, a whole region that we were somehow supposed to "have."

The "Who lost...?" formula is something like a magic trick. There's no way to grasp how it works until you take your eyes away from those who are shouting alarms and look at what's going on behind the scenes.

Who's in Charge Here?

The curious case of the incident in Benghazi was full of surprises from the beginning. It was the rare pundit who didn't assure us that voters wouldn't care a whit about foreign affairs this year. It was all going to be "the economy, stupid," 24/7. And if foreign issues did create a brief stir, surely the questions would be about Afghanistan, Pakistan, or China.

Yet for weeks, the deaths of the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans became the rallying cry of the campaign to unseat Barack Obama. What made this even more surprising: when news of the tragedy first broke, it appeared to be stillborn as a political issue.

The day after the attack on the consulate, as the news about the killings was just coming out, Mitt Romney rushed to blast his opponent: "American leadership is necessary to ensure that events in the region don't spin out of control." A president must show "resolve in our might" and a readiness to use "overwhelming force." Barack Obama had failed on all these counts, Romney charged, and the deaths in Benghazi proved it.

The Republican presidential candidate was duly blasted in return for "politicizing" the incident. It seemed like almost everyone chimed in critically. Even longtime Republican stalwart Ed Rogers wrote that "Romney stumbled," while "the president said the right things and had the right tone."

Romney never retracted anything he said on that first day—and somehow the same words, once scorned as unfitting and "unpresidential," were mysteriously transformed into powerful arguments against reelecting the incumbent. A month later, a new story dominated the headlines: Romney's criticisms on Libya were now said to be hitting the target, changing the dynamic, playing a major role in his campaign's resurgence.

This change of tune surely reflected in part the media's primal need for a close presidential contest to keep the public's interest. At the time of the Libyan incident it was generally agreed that Obama was beginning to pull ahead in the race, potentially decisively, and anything that might boost Romney's chance was undoubtedly welcome on an editor's desk.

No matter how hard editors try, though, some stories just don't stick. But the Libya story stuck. It struck a chord somewhere in the hearts and minds of a lot of Americans. You have to wonder why.

A big part of the answer lies in the power of the key words in Romney's first statement: "might" and "control." His strategists grasped a fundamental truth of American politics: The public has an endless appetite for gripping stories about challenges to America's global might and its right to control the world. So they doubled down and sent their man out to tell the story again.

In his first major foreign policy speech, Romney absolved his opponent of any direct responsibility for the four American deaths, but he pilloried Obama for a far more grievous sin. By a wild leap of imagination, he turned this one incident into the spearhead of a vast assault on America:"Our embassies have been attacked.Our flag has been burned… Our nation was attacked."

The president's job is to protect us by dominating our enemies, the challenger proclaimed. It's our consistent record of victory as well as our values that make America "exceptional"—and on Obama's watch, as the incident in Benghazi proved, America and its exceptionalism had gone down for the count.

This was not simply an exaggerated indictment of presidential "weakness." As he had on that first day, Romney was again raising a question even more crucial to any popular narrative of American foreign policy: Who's in charge here?

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