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US says Libya attack was terrorism: Was it unprepared for Arab Spring fallout?

Now that the White House says a 'terrorist attack' struck the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, questions could arise about President Obama's Middle East policy in the wake of the Arab Spring.

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Libyan women protest against Ansar al-Shariah Brigades and other Islamic militias in front of the Tebesty Hotel, in Benghazi, Libya, Friday. The attack that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans has sparked a backlash among frustrated Libyans against the heavily armed gunmen, including Islamic extremists, who run rampant in their cities. More than 10,000 people poured into a main boulevard of Benghazi, demanding that militias disband.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

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After a week of hesitation, the White House now says it is “self-evident” that a “terrorist attack,” and not just a spontaneous reaction from a furious mob, struck the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week.

The characterization is important, because it opens the door to the conclusion that the attack was a preplanned assault, resulting in the deaths of four US diplomats, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

The repercussions of declaring that the Benghazi attack was a planned terrorist assault on the United States would be extensive. For starters, it would raise questions about the Obama administration’s precautions in a volatile region and its preparedness for anti-US strikes in an area known to harbor Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist elements.

More broadly, it could call into question President Obama’s Middle East policy in the wake of the Arab awakening. Some Republican critics are already tarring the policy as too weak and dismissive of the threats that the region’s tumult presents.

Far from clarifying the situation, the White House characterization of the Benghazi attack as self-evidently a terrorist attack only muddies the waters further, some foreign-policy experts say.

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