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On September 20, just days after the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans had been murdered in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, a crowd of some 30,000 Libyans jammed the main square of that city to protest his death. They carried signs that read, “We want justice for Chris” and “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.”
When members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia—an Islamist terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda—tried to hold a counter-demonstration, the crowd erupted into fury, chanting, “You terrorists, you cowards, go back to Afghanistan.” The newly free citizens of Libya then marched spontaneously on Ansar al-Sharia’s encampment, setting it on fire, and confiscating much of the group’s weaponry, even braving gunfire from the well-armed terrorists that left four dead. The crowd then went on to systematically destroy the camps of several other such militias, and hand their weapons over to the official Libyan military.
Surely, this was the biggest news story to come out of the Middle East over the last month. It should have been a huge story, potentially a watershed moment, a signal of some profound shifts taking place in the region. One might have expected extensive follow-up stories and intense speculation about just what it all means.
Instead, after the initial report of the demonstration, this remarkable story was dropped down the memory hole. Why? Because once again, a pliant mainstream media has been cowed into line by the right wing’s conspiracy machine, which backfired loudly the other night, when Mitt Romney took up the right’s party line without even a rudimentary fact check, and tried to insist during the second presidential debate that President Obama had not dared to call Stevens’s murder a terrorist attack for two weeks.
In fact, the president had condemned this “act of terror” at a Rose Garden press conference the day after it happened—something that debate moderator Candy Crowley quietly affirmed in the course of the debate. Ever since, outraged right-wing commentators have poured into the Fox News studios, condemning Ms. Crowley for having dared to “crush Mitt’s big moment” by, well, telling the truth.
President Obama began his Rose Garden statement by talking about the murder of the ambassador and the other Americans, and he closed with this paragraph:
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. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.
But this was not good enough for longtime, right-wing columnist Mickey Kaus. Mr. Obama had also referred earlier to the original 9/11 attack, and so Kaus claimed he was befuddled, and maybe deceived: “The antecedent is confused, presumably intentionally so.”
Erik Wemple, a right-wing blogger for the Washington Post, insisted that President Obama’s “statement lacks any definitive, concrete reference points, providing grist for critics of Crowley and her extemporaneous fact-checking,” and that thus, “Crowley has no case when she slaps Romney back”—“slapping back” in this case being defined as quietly demurring when somebody tells a brazen lie.
American Crossroads, a Super PAC formed by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, charged in an instant memo that “The President clearly misled the American people with this claim, because if Obama’s Rose Garden speech was indeed the White House position, it did not inform any subsequent statement by the White House press office . . .”
So if the president makes a statement, in public, before news cameras and reporters, it’s still not an official presidential statement if various underlings don’t repeat it verbatim afterward?
Gillespie, quoted as “a senior adviser to Mr. Romney” in the New York Times, insisted that “It’s just not the case that he [Mr. Obama] condemned these attacks for what they are . . .”
How is that? Because “He did not say that the ambassador was assassinated by terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda.” So now denouncing terrorists is not denouncing terrorists unless, apparently, you read out their entire dossier.
And of course, because today all right-wingers quote all fellow right-wingers—yet another right-wing, Washington Post pundit, Jennifer Rubin, railed at Ms. Crowley for having “egregiously sided with President Obama on his false remarks on Libya,” and denounced the president’s “attempts to wriggle free from his own words and actions on Libya . . .”
The above statements actually do lend credence to one of the right-wing’s most persistent claims: that the education system in this country is failing abominably. It must be, if even people who make their living with a laptop can no longer accurately comprehend and describe a simple statement.
Actually, President Obama was attempting to wriggle into his own words on Libya. And as for his actions, well, they have included leaving one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, the tyrant Muammar Qaddafi, dead in the sand with a bullet in the back of his head.
Though even this has been condemned by many on the right. Because, you see, an anonymous administration staffer referred to the White House policy in Libya as “leading from behind”—an inglorious phrase to be sure, even if it meant that Libya was free, Qaddafi was dead, and tens of thousands of the country’s innocent citizens were saved from the massacre Qaddafi promised them, and all without the loss of a single American life in combat.
The strange idea that bloodless regime change in Libya was bad, while bloody, useless regime change in Iraq and everywhere else is good, has become a running trope on the right. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat went so far as to condemn “our Libyan intervention” altogether, suggesting that it “helped create a power vacuum in which terrorist groups can operate with impunity,” as evidenced “in nearby Mali, where the ripple effects from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s overthrow have helped empower a Qaeda affiliate.”
So now we’ve truly gone all the way through the looking glass. Round and round the right-wing wheel of the surreal goes, and where it will stop, nobody knows. The stench of mendacity on the right became so powerful that it provoked Rachel Maddow to an impassioned and brilliant commentary on MSNBC last night, in which she linked the formal withdrawal of Republicans from the reality-based community to Romney’s inclusion of Jerome Corsi, probably the most repugnant of all the “birther” conspirators, on the campaign plane—and then attributed it to Mr. Romney’s own debate stumble.
Yet I doubt if Romney really has any illusions about Mr. Corsi’s claims, or Benghazi. The goal here, as Ms. Rubin helpfully spells out, is “to dominate the headlines, soak up the political oxygen and make it increasingly difficult for Obama to recapture the momentum.”
And it’s working, thanks to mainstream journalists who, only a few years after the object lesson afforded by Judith Miller, are once again rolling over.
Glenn Kessler, a fact-checker on the Washington Post, agreed that Mr. Obama said that, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation,” but added: “But he did not say ‘terrorism’—and it took the administration days to concede that it was an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Mohammed.” Can anyone tell me how “acts of terror” are different from “terrorism”? Mike Allen, a fact-checker at Politico, and the anonymous buffoons at PolitiFact gave us similar, silly exercises in pedantry.
These might be attributed to the routine follies of a dying, once-great newspaper and a couple of second-rate blogs. But over at the New York Times, reporter Mark Landler—who has for weeks trotted eagerly after the prevailing right-wing narrative that Benghazi represents some kind of damning, Watergate-style, “what did he know and when did he know it” scandal—opined: “It says something about the murky nature of the Libyan attack, and its messy aftermath, that Mr. Romney appeared not to know that Mr. Obama had labeled it an ‘act of terror’ the day after it occurred.’ ”
Yes, it says that Mr. Romney was caught perpetuating an ugly lie. But Mr. Landler and most of his colleagues are either too naive or too intimidated to write it. The fact that the initial reports coming into Washington after the Benghazi attack were muddled and contradictory is not a scandal. (Had the administration refused to release them until everything was clear, no doubt that would be the scandal today.)
What’s more, no one on the right truly thinks it is. What Republicans are trying to do is exactly what they’ve done in so many elections of the past: create a construct that will undermine one of the Democratic candidate’s main selling points. Thus, John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was “Swift-boated” as a lying fake. Michael Dukakis, a dedicated environmentalist, was turned into the polluter of Boston Harbor. And now the right is trying to make President Barack Obama, the man who brought down Qaddafi, ordered the execution of Osama bin Laden, and has the U.S. military launching daily raids and drone strikes against al Qaeda and its allies, into some kind of terrorist-coddling appeaser. It’s a classic Big Lie, and one that’s coupled to Mr. Romney and the right’s other Big Lies that Mr. Obama has betrayed Israel, and that the president’s strategy in the Middle East “is unraveling before our eyes.”
In fact, our position in the area has rarely been stronger. Grateful mobs of citizens are now marching in Libya to rout the terrorists who dared to attack our representative. Iran is isolated from the world, its economy collapsing, its mullahs staggered. Syria, their longtime cat’s paw, is now engulfed in a civil war, unable to do any more of its bloody mischief in the region for the time being.
But this isn’t enough for the right, which wants a president who will both press for war with Iran and stand behind not just Israel but Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy to hold on to the West Bank in perpetuity. Just ten years after swallowing whole the Bush Administration’s lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the mainstream media seems willing to ingest any number of new fantasies about the region, even if it means immersing us in quagmires that will make Iraq look like a walk in the park. It’s a betrayal of their trust, and a betrayal of their country—but one they’d apparently rather undertake than risk anyone on the right yelling at them.
More from Kevin Baker:
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”