The terrorist attack on U.S. Consulate Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans, is back on front pages again. It’s never been out of the news entirely – and if you watch FoxNews it’s been a staple feature for the last twenty months, proving almost as popular as blondes on Roger Ailes’ network – but it’s been thrust back in the limelight by the revelations of White House emails obtained by a right-wing interest group through the Freedom of Information Act.
I’ve written a bit about the Benghazi disaster, at the outset of the scandal, but I’ve kept reasonably quiet about it since because it’s become such a partisan political football that just reading about it has made me want to take a shower. I detest how too many Americans allow ideology to blind them to realities they simply do not wish to see, and I loathe the shouting match that passes for debate, even among people who ought to know better. Grotesqueries have abounded in the Benghazi story on all sides. Our dead heroes deserve better than this, far better.
As someone who understands how Washington, DC works, particularly its secretive side, I can attest that upwards of ninety percent of the media coverage of what actually happened in Benghazi is wrong, sometimes intentionally. The essence of the story was never complicated: Stevens, a hard-working diplomat who cared deeply about his mission, was caught flat-footed because the situation in Benghazi was spiraling out of control, and moreover most of “his” Benghazi mission really belonged to Other Government Agencies, with whom coordination of security was problematic. The rest we know, and have for some time.
I have more than a little sympathy for the White House here. They remained ebullient after the successful tagging and bagging of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs not much more than a year before – how could they not? – and the narrative that Barack Obama had decisively defeated al-Qa’ida was understandably important in the 2012 reelection campaign. Moreover, Obama’s participation in the Libya war of 2011, the stage-setting for the Benghazi tragedy, was reluctant – for entirely valid reasons, I hasten to add – despite the ardent counsel of some of his less competent advisers. Operation ODYSSEY DAWN, to use its proper name, was undertaken at the behest of European NATO allies who were terrified by the specter of six million Libyan refugees headed in small boats across the Mediterranean. The dismal security situation left in its wake was hardly America’s fault.
Yet what can be lain at the doorstep of the White House is a lingering denial about how bad things were really getting in Libya in the summer of 2012. It’s clear, at least in hindsight, that too little attention was paid to warnings emanating from Americans actually in the country regarding the rising danger U.S. diplomats and others were actually in. Nevertheless, stuff happens, as they say inside the Beltway, and the failure to give our Benghazi consulate sufficient security is the sort of mistake that governments make all the time. This time, however, it mattered.
That said, the Obama administration’s serious failures here all came after the smoke had cleared from our consulate and the magnitude of the disaster was obvious. It would be wise to recount the basic right-wing talking points about the events of September 11, 2012:
1) the State Department and White House did not take adequate security precautions for U.S. diplomats and personnel in Benghazi;
2) the attack on CONGEN Benghazi was a preplanned terrorist attack somehow affiliated with al-Qa’ida;
3) more could have been done to rescue U.S. personnel once the attack was underway;
4) to cover itself during the election, the White House concocted a story about a YouTube video leading to spontaneous protests that got violent, ignoring contrary field reports from U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel;
5) last, the White House engaged in a cover-up of its cover-up of the actual events at Benghazi.
While there is no evidence that point three has any validity – there simply were not sufficient Special Operations personnel or platforms close enough to have made any difference once the attack was underway, following all known evidence to date – it’s now clear, based on what came to light this week, that the other points are true, at least generally.
In response to a disaster of the kind that befalls every administration eventually, the Obama White House decided to obfuscate and, it seems, simply lie. Like Nixon in 1972, this administration opted to “go rogue” to save an election they were going to win anyway. Instead of coming clean and taking the hit, the White House placed the cover-up in the hands of its deputy national security adviser, a young speechwriter with zero experience in national security matters, who then proceeded to write a lot of FOIA-able emails about it. I could pontificate about having our national security policies crafted by people who don’t really know anything about how the world works, but I’d be repeating myself.
What could have been a relatively brief scandal that would have cost the jobs of a few White House officials, none too senior – who, naturally, would have landed lucrative K Street gigs within an hour of their cashiering – instead went another direction, and the Obama administration now faces a political nightmare. There’s a reason, “it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up,” is the most overused DC cliche: it’s so often true. Predictably, House Speaker John Boehner has already announced a special committee to reexamine Benghazi, and he intends to call Secretary of State John Kerry to testify. This will likely devolve into a sad partisan spectacle like everything else does on Capitol Hill these days, but the White House decided to give the GOP this scandal on a platter with its slow-rolling mishandling of the Benghazi tragedy, and now they have no one to blame but themselves.
Just as predictably, plenty on the left are insisting, yet again, that Republicans are inventing a scandal and Benghazi is really no big deal, and besides it was all of two years ago. These excuses hover between dumb and disgraceful. It is always a big deal when a U.S. diplomatic facility comes under major terrorist attack, particularly when our ambassador lays down his life. Moreover, those on the left harping about the right harping about Benghazi are frequently the same people who, only a few years ago, were protesting that the largely contrived scandal surrounding Valerie Plame – it was so harmful to Ms. Plame that it landed her on the cover of Vanity Fair, most glamorously – was the biggest abuse of White House power since Watergate, requiring aggressive prosecution of evildoers. The tables have turned, and this is how the DC game is played, so get used to it.
The White House today finds itself in an awkward place of its own creation. What could have been a brief, manageable scandal has now become an extended one that may dog the administration for the rest of its second term, while trashing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential ambitions to boot. Mainstream media outlets are no longer burying the story, and the White House ought not expect a pass anymore, particularly as reporters generally sympathetic to the administration are calling it out for its dishonesty over Benghazi. For this, the White House, again, has nobody to blame but themselves.
I hope the American public learns the truth about what happened at Benghazi, why, and what came in its aftermath, both in Libya and in Washington, DC. There are more than academic questions at play here. Truth and justice, by no means always the same thing in our nation’s capital, deserve an audience. I especially hope that the coming investigation avoids excessive partisanship of the sort so many Americans, including this one, feel is corroding our entire political system, but I’m not overly optimistic on that point, given the recent track record of both parties. I’ll settle for knowing what really happened to Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods – and why.
[As always, the author’s comments are his alone, reflective of his opinion, and possibly the cat’s, and definitely not any of his employers, past or present.]