President Barack Obama and his administration did not only mislead the American people, they misled themselves on what happened the night of Sept. 11 in Benghazi, a top Romney foreign-policy advisor told The Cable ahead of Monday night's debate.
Regardless of whether or not Obama called the events in Benghazi an "act of terror" in the days following the attack, Mitt Romney does not believe the administration's insistence that the attack was related to an anti-Islam video was based solely on reports from the intelligence community, Romney advisor and former National Security Council official Eliot Cohen said in an interview.
"This notion that this was all because the intelligence community gave them bad information is just not correct. The idea that this was all attributable to the trailer for a crackpot movie was just not true," Cohen said. "That's a big fundamental problem that the administration has to deal with, that they did mislead people for a period of time, and what's even scarier, they misled themselves."
Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have reported that the intelligence community didn't formally revise its view that there may have been a protest related to the video until Sept. 22; the intelligence community maintains, according to the Times, that militants involved in the attack were inspired by the breach of the U.S. Embassy walls in Cairo.
But the Romney campaign's critique is broader than its claims of mishandled intelligence.
Cohen said that during Monday night's debate, Romney will likely refer to the administration's reaction to the Benghazi attack to counter the administration's claim that it has dealt a devastating blow to al Qaeda and that al Qaeda is "on its heels," as Obama has said many times in the past.
"They wanted to believe the narrative that this was an understandable if excessive and unacceptable reaction to a provocative piece of video, because the alternative would be to believe that their story, which is that the extremist problem is an essentially an al Qaeda problem, that it's a narrowly defined problem that you can deal with through targeted killings, that al Qaeda was on the verge of strategic defeat, is not true," he said. "In fact you are dealing with a larger problem which has metastasized across the Middle East. That is something they did not want to believe. You get into trouble when you try to fool other people. You get in bigger trouble when you try to fool yourself."
Cohen also criticized Obama for saying the death of four Americans is "not optimal" during an appearance last week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart had used the word "optimal" in his question to Obama, but Cohen said that Obama shouldn't have taken the bait.
"For the president to get on a comedy show and say that the death of four Americans is ‘not optimal,' that is a really disturbing way to react to his event. It's absolutely glib," he said. "A president is supposed to be self-aware enough to just use words like ‘tragedy.' He's not supposed to be Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart is a comic; the president is supposed to be something else."
As for the debate, Cohen said that Obama has a natural advantage because he has access to vast amounts of intelligence and hundreds of national security officials, whereas Romney has limited foreign-policy information resources.
"There is a fundamental asymmetry here... The governor and the president both have experience creating jobs. Only one of them has been president with responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy," he said. "I think what you can expect from Governor Romney -- what is reasonable to expect -- is his assessment of how he sees the world, how he sees the larger developments that are out there, a set of principles of he thinks shape foreign policy, a sense of his leadership style, and how he makes decisions, and then an examination of the record of the guy who actually has been in charge for the last four years."
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has been advertising its message about Romney's foreign-policy competence this week, including through a memo penned by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) alleging that Romney has failed the "commander-in-chief" test.
"We have that steady and strong leader today in President Obama. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, offers nothing but endless bluster and a record of dangerous blunders, failing at every turn to show he's up to the challenge. In fact, Governor Romney has outlined fewer specific policies for how he would lead on national security issues than any presidential candidate in my memory," Kerry wrote. He is an extreme and expedient candidate who lacks the judgment and vision so vital for the Oval Office, and he's at the top of the most inexperienced foreign policy ticket to run for president and vice president in decades."
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