The word "terrorism" took on almost magical qualities during this week's presidential debate.
As Republican contender Mitt Romney hounded President Barack Obama for failing to use the term in connection with the deadly assault this past Sept. 11 on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, moderator Candy Crowley took the unusual step of affirming Obama had indeed done so the day after the assault. Technically, Obama didn't refer to the Benghazi attack as terrorism in that speech. In six references to the "attack" or "act" he could have added the word "terrorist" but didn't. At the end, after honoring those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."
Should the president have characterized the Benghazi attack as terrorism at that point? Probably not. Early on, erroneous reports suggested that a grass-roots protest of an anti-Muslim video on YouTube had turned violent. Those reports came in part from Libyan Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif, who was fired a week later.
At the same time, Republicans are right to argue that administration officials were too slow to give up on the story of a protest gone awry. How much of that delay was due to a desire to protect Obama's narrative that he has defeated al-Qaeda, only the administration officials know for sure.
One reason there may have been confusion within the administration over the nature of the Benghazi assault is that the attackers, in real time and afterward, said they were provoked by the same video that had prompted simultaneous demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. In Egypt, protesters breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy, ripped down the American flag and replaced it with one carrying an Islamic inscription.
Benghazi was different because there were casualties -- Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died -- and because a violent group, Ansar al-Sharia, spearheaded the assault. Still, the facts, as they have emerged so far, don't support the idea pushed by some Republicans that the attack was evidence of a dangerously resurgent al-Qaeda.
Instead, as Bloomberg News's John Walcott and Christopher Stephen have reported, the evidence suggests a hasty and poorly organized strike. True, the attackers used a rocket-propelled grenade, but that is a common weapon in Libya. One of Ansar al-Sharia's leaders is said to have connections to al-Qaeda affiliates. That does not put al-Qaeda behind the Benghazi attack, however. Intelligence officials say al-Qaeda-associated groups only learned of the strike after one of the attackers called them to boast about it.
So, both Obama and Romney now agree that the Benghazi episode was terrorism, even if the episode fits neither the initial White House description nor the Republicans' most alarming interpretation. Does that designation suggest what should be done about it?
President George W. Bush declared a global war on all terrorism. Yet terrorism merely defines a strategy that any violent party might use. Obama, wisely, has limited his war to a discrete enemy of the U.S.: al-Qaeda.
Of course, other U.S. foes, like the men behind the Benghazi attack, will emerge; some will be Islamic extremists, and some will use terrorism. The U.S. will have to devise context-specific responses to counter them, as it did long before there was a Sept. 11 attack.
Focusing solely on the act of terrorism, without assessing motive, geopolitical stakes or other inputs, makes a one-strategy-suits-all response far too tempting. Methods of war, such as unilateral commando raids and drone attacks -- not to mention the invasion of Afghanistan -- have been appropriate responses to al-Qaeda's devastating, premeditated and well-organized attacks on the U.S. homeland, embassies and vessels. On the other hand, based on the evidence so far, Ansar al-Sharia's provocation in Benghazi calls for a more nuanced response that preserves local goodwill. Strengthening the counterterrorism capabilities of Libyan and other regional authorities and working with them to bring the perpetrators to justice will serve U.S. interests far better than an overreaction induced by a uniquely troublesome word: "terrorism."
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
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