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Politicizing Benghazi

On September 11, 2012, in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and a wave of protests around the region against that absurd YouTube video, an attack in Benghazi killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. officials. American officials were surprised by the attack, shocked and horrified by the death of a close colleague, clearly confused about what exactly had happened, and a bit disorganized in their public statements. Reporters, politicians, and analysts have a number of serious important unanswered questions about the nature of the attack, security arrangements in Benghazi, the real role of al Qaeda, and the implications for possible future attacks. They might also be asking questions about why the protests so quickly fizzled and why so many Arab governments and political activists denounced the attacks and their perpetrators.

But that's not the debate we're having. Instead, in what passes for foreign policy debate six weeks before a presidential election, Republicans are focused on selectively parsing words to concoct a fantasy of the greatest scandal in American history -- worse than Watergate! As dangerous as the failure to connect dots before 9/11! Grounds for impeachment! The political calculations here are almost painfully transparent, as the Romney campaign desperately flails about for a way to attack Obama on foreign policy and change the subject to anything which doesn't include the phrase "47 percent." The media, bored with the current electoral narrative and always infatuated with sensational images of Muslim rage and the hint of scandal, is happy to play along. Such is policy debate during election season.

The focus of the "BenghaziGate" narrative has been on the conflicting narratives offered by Obama administration officials about what happened. The administration, they argue, intentionally played down the terrorism dimension of the attack for political reasons. A fair reading of administration statements would suggest confusion in the initial fog of war, with conflicting information and carefully guarded assessments which were updated as more evidence came in. Frankly, I don't think the administration did a particularly good job of communicating their stance, or coordinating their message across different officials, and they did seem oddly defensive and reactive as the media narrative gathered steam. But as "scandals" go this is weak stuff indeed.

The campaign against Susan Rice is especially misguided. Rice has energized U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations, restoring it to the center of U.S. foreign policy and playing a particularly central role in securing a Security Council mandate for the intervention in Libya. She has relentlessly pursued a U.N. role in Syria, despite Russian and Chinese objections, and has been a vocal and effective advocate of both the United States and of global norms. Indeed, she is arguably the most successful and important U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since Thomas Pickering, who managed the diplomacy at the United Nations for the liberation of Kuwait in 1990-91. Making her the scapegoat for a non-scandal has more to do with the desperate search for ways to attack Obama and preparing the ground for possible Secretary of State confirmation hearings next year than with anything grounded in reality.

That doesn't mean that there aren't serious questions. Journalists were absolutely right to dig deeper and to challenge the official narrative, and serious analysts will be struggling for weeks and months to come to assess what really happened. Was this an opportunistic attack by local extremists, or an attack coordinated with and supported by the remnants of al Qaeda Central? Even if it was opportunistic and unplanned, will its success become a model for future attacks? Will the Libyan government and the popular movements to disarm militias be strong enough to successfully establish state control? What is the significance of the fizzling of the protests across most of the region, and the crackdown by elected governments on the groups behind them? What about other governments faced with potentially emergent extremist groups, from Tunisia and Egypt to farther afield? How could the United States effectively work with those governments to meet such challenges? And at home, does Romney support Arab democracy along with long-time advocates in his party such as John McCain and Bill Kristol, or does he side with those on the GOP right more fearful of the empowerment of Islamists? I certainly don't know the answers to all these questions, even if most contributors to the "debate" seem to have such perfect information.

But instead of those debates, we're treated to a witch-hunt against Susan Rice and a flood of surrogates in the media attempting to exploit the horrific images of a dead ambassador for political gain. The only bright side is that, well, eventually election season will be over.

fficial White House Photo by Pete Souza

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