Republicans are clamoring for answers after the death of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in what administration officials now describe as a “terrorist attack.” At the vice presidential debate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., accused the White House of changing its story and failing to provide adequate security for Stevens. With State Department and FBI investigations ongoing, here are four questions the candidates could face during Tuesday’s second presidential debate.
1. Are you planning an attack or mission to bring the killers to justice?
Intelligence officials have focused on local militant group Ansar al-Shariah, and U.S. authorities are already searching for those responsible for the attack. Election-year testosterone may tempt both candidates to vow to do whatever it takes to bring down Stevens’ killers, but a serious statesman would also stress the need to avoid a maneuver that would alienate the Libyan people, destabilize the fragile democracy, or embroil the U.S. in a larger conflict. “The last thing we need is another war,” Vice President Joe Biden said at last week’s debate. President Obama could also use this question as an opportunity to bring up his successful takedown of Osama bin Laden.
2. Did the Obama administration deliberately avoid calling the assault a “terrorist attack”?
State Department officials revealed last week that they never believed the Benghazi assault evolved out of a protest, but U.N. Amb. Susan Rice said last month that the assault began as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video. The White House argues that the public has always been presented with the best intelligence available to administration officials at the time, and Biden made that case last week. Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans say otherwise. There’s not much the president can do to rebut a conspiracy theory in a debate setting, other than revealing new information. Obama, like Biden, needs to reassure voters that his administration hasn’t lied to them. And both Romney and Obama also need to avoid wading too deep into the partisan scuffle over a U.S. ambassador’s death; doing so would make them seem petty, rather than presidential.
3. Was the consulate inadequately protected, and are there additional concerns about security at other diplomatic outposts, particularly in light of last week’s murder of an embassy security chief in Yemen?
This question invites "liar, liar" claims from both sides: Republican outrage over inadequate precautions in Benghazi is undermined by Republican votes to cut State Department funding for embassy security. But the question actually gives the candidates a chance to make a bigger point. Romney can talk about priorities in a time of austerity, and the importance of spending money on defense and protecting American lives abroad. Obama can skewer Republican zest for cutting discretionary spending by explaining that, sometimes, cutting a line item can cost lives.
4. Are we winning the war on terror?
Obama ordered the killing of bin Laden, and the president’s drone program has taken out many more terrorist leaders. But as Romney pointed out in a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute, al-Qaida and its allies are alive and well across the Middle East and the world. Paul Ryan says the administration’s foreign policy is “unraveling.” Romney can criticize the president for failing to do more, but he has yet to make a convincing case for what he’d do differently. To successfully attack the president on foreign policy—period—Romney needs to move beyond Bush-era dogma and emphasize lessons learned since the Sept. 11 attacks.