Why no one has been right about Libya

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney generic election

This post originally appeared on Slate.

It has been more than a month since the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and no one has gotten the Libya question right. Not the president, not Mitt Romney. The most recent blunder was Romney's decision to attack President Obama during the last debate for not declaring the attacks in Benghazi "an act of terror." This has set off a heated argument about the difference between an "act of terror" and "terrorism."

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the president is winning that debate--which may explain why Romney has gone quiet on Libya since he walked out of the auditorium at Hofstra University. Romney charged that Obama had not used the words "act of terror," when in fact the president clearly had in his statement from the Rose Garden on Sept. 12. But Romney's loss wasn't clarity's gain. Indeed, the president is clinging to his Rose Garden transcript specifically with the intent of obfuscating his administration's fuzzy evolution on what happened and why.

The third presidential debate is to be devoted to national security and foreign policy, which should be the most important debate if you are serious about what a president actually does in office. A president holds more personal power to shape foreign affairs than he does domestic affairs. President Obama personally approves every action taken against those on a "kill list" of suspected terrorists. Despite his campaign rhetoric about engaging Iran, he embraced President George W. Bush's covert cyber operation against Iran's nuclear program, as David Sanger outlines in his book Confront and Conceal.

So for the next debate we should get into big questions: What is the biggest crisis you've faced? How do you define the national interest? What is a sufficient justification for military action? What theory of human rights will determine the decisions you make about the use of drones? What is the greatest foreign policy threat facing the United States?

Right now, the conversation is headed in the opposite direction. We are going small bore on Libya, delving into the tiniest questions and definitions of what happened there during a few hours one day in September. We're certain to get even smaller as Republicans seize on the president's comments to Jon Stewart: "If four Americans get killed it is not optimal." (True dat, Spock)

Mitt Romney started the push to the picayune. He reacted prematurely after the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, asserting that a press release from the U.S. embassy in Cairo had been a drastic sign of U.S. weakness. The instinct to condemn the whole of U.S. foreign policy based on a one-paragraph statement is what you want to do as a politician. But it is the opposite of what the statesman wishes to project. Doing so, especially during a crisis, is a warning to voters, a suggestion that this person is not serious. In matters of foreign policy, a person playing the small game often doesn't appear to have the prudence, wisdom, and judgment that the job requires.

That was Barack Obama's argument against Mitt Romney. Presidents don't rush in to score political points in a crisis. That's a style point, and style is part of diplomacy. But prudence is also a part of foreign policy. Perhaps the prudent political thing was to move quickly to hurt Obama, but the prudent move of a statesman is to think and consider. Presidents know that initial reports are almost always wrong.