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“What Benghazi Means”: Lost Is The Concept Of Content And Facts

Hillary Clinton was pissed. A Republican senator was accusing her of misleading the world about a raid on a diplomatic compound in Libya that killed four Americans.

“With all due respect,” the then-secretary of state snapped at Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, “The fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans?”

“What difference at this point does it make?”

In the overheated echo chamber of Washington, if not elsewhere, it made a difference during that January hearing. This was, after all, a mano-a-mano, nationally televised confrontation between partisan Republicans and a famously divisive Democrat concluding a celebrated tour as loyal aide to President Obama, the man who vanquished her for the 2008 presidential nomination.

And it makes perhaps even more of a difference after a Capitol Hill melodrama last week in which the deadly terrorist attack was recounted with fresh, even chilling, details that begged the ultimate question:

What does the tragic Sept. 11, 2012 death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others amount to, if anything, for either Obama or for Clinton if she runs for President in 2016?

What Republicans believed was a two-legged smoking gun came in the form of Gregory Hicks, the No. 2 diplomat at our embassy in Tripoli. Appearing before a House oversight panel, he was introduced with fanfare by Republican Darrell Issa of California, whose self-image as a national security expert may partly stem from parlaying a car alarm business into the largest personal fortune in Congress.

Hicks recounted a conversation with the leader of a Special Operations team in Tripoli, furious when ordered not to fly to Benghazi after the attack. He said he was rebuked by superiors for talking to a GOP congressman who visited Libya later.

Finally, he said, he was berated by Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and famously loyal former President Bill Clinton aide, for excluding a State Department lawyer from a meeting because the lawyer didn’t have the correct security clearance.

The capper was when Susan Rice, the UN ambassador, suggested on Sunday talk shows shortly after the attack that it was a result of protests over an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube.

“My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed,” said Hicks, who claimed that he has been essentially demoted since (which the State Department flatly denies).

Hicks was preaching to what amounted to a Republican choir which sees calculated deceit in the Rice appearance. They can’t fathom the possibility that it was something else, namely a ham-handed mix of confusion, ineptitude and political spin.

That’s all seemingly lost in the fog of a Washington political war. Among the casualties are context and some facts:

History. American government facilities are a sadly regular target for terrorists. There have been many dozens of attacks on U.S. embassies, consulates, military compounds and personnel since the 1979 takeover of our embassy in Tehran. The most deadly one resulted in the deaths of 241 servicemen after the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut.

But it is also true that since gaining a House majority in 2010, Republicans have sharply cut State Department budget requests for more embassy security funding. For fiscal 2012, they shaved the request by $331 million.

Self-criticism. State initiated an independent review of Benghazi led by Thomas Pickering, a revered former diplomat, and Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It eviscerated the department for “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” that prompted “a security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”

“Cover-up.” This is a constant GOP refrain, even belittling the Pickering-Mullen review as letting Clinton herself off the hook. A recent joint report by Republican leaders asserted that “the leadership failure in relation to security and policy in Benghazi extended to the highest levels of the State Department, including Secretary Clinton,” who left at the end of January.

The evidence is ambiguous at best and includes the mistake-filled fencing over whether Obama refused to call Benghazi a “terrorist” attack. Forgotten by many is that he used the term in his first public statement on Sept. 12. “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” he said in the Rose Garden.

Inexplicably, several key administration officials, including Vice President Biden and Rice, seem to have then dropped the term from their lexicons. Garrulous Biden improbably did not directly rebut Rep. Paul Ryan’s assertion in their vice-presidential debate that it “took the President two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack.”

Talking points. The capital chattering class has spent much time parsing the confounding intricacies of the talking points given Rice for the Sunday TV interviews in which she said, “What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what happened, transpired in Cairo,” where protesters at the U.S. embassy were outraged over the crude anti-Muslim video.

Jonathan Karl of ABC News sent Obama critics into a tizzy Friday with a report about State Department and White House memos intended to revise the talking points prior to the Rice appearances. His disclosures were quickly embraced by Obama-Clinton critics as further proof of skullduggery.

But, when asked later by Politico, Karl conceded, “There’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton was aware of what was going on, or in any way tried to direct what was in these talking points.”

Despite the clear impression of confusion, imprecision and bureaucratic fumbling – which are hallmarks of every administration since, well, Washington – some conservatives are unconvinced. Every rhetorical inconsistency is now viewed in the most suspicious light, much as Democrats would do if the shoe were on the other foot with a Republican White House.

Thus, Peter Feaver, a national security aide to President George W. Bush who now teachers public policy at Duke, contends that the slew of debatable internal memos point “pretty convincingly to the conclusion that there was willful misleading going on in the earliest days.”

Really? Might it not simply be what Feaver admits can be “tolerable spin and understandable fog-of-war confusion in the face of conflicting reports”?

In the end, so much of the critics’ ire is directed at Clinton, a catalytic figure once again presumed to be the frontrunner for her party’s presidential nomination if she wants it.

That’s no surprise to journalist-historian David Maraniss, biographer of both Bill Clinton and Obama and a longtime Hillary observer.

Assessing her Benghazi performance, and the whole Washington scene, he finds “the same old murky convergence of Clintonian defensiveness, especially via Cheryl Mills, and GOP overreaction via Rep. Issa et al.”

Bingo, a sense of history and context.

Such a perspective explains why the whole contretemps is notable not just for the noise it generates in the Washington echo chamber but also for some conspicuous silence.

Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center, says Pew is in the field right now doing polling on the issue. But he suspects it is flying below the radar screen of most Americans.

Then there’s one of the most sober and thoughtful Republicans on foreign policy, former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, long a stalwart on the foreign relations committee.

Though Stevens was an admired former Lugar staffer, Lugar has neither condoned nor condemned U.S. actions in response to the Benghazi attack. And a former Republican staffer on that committee underscored his own bottom line:

“This is not Iran-Contra,” he said, alluding to the bonafide Reagan era scandal in which secret arms sales to Iran were used to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.

“These were people here in a dangerous position trying to do the best they could,” said the former staffer. “There were probably real communications issues. Rice knew when going on air this all didn’t add up. In retrospect she should have simply said, ‘It simply wasn’t clear what was happening.’ That would have taken care of it.”

Team Obama fumbled. And Republicans saw an opportunity to diminish Obama and Clinton. It was a twofer, with Benghazi serving as a potential real-time version of the nastily effective “Swift Boat” attacks on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.

But it’s not having that same impact, and thus it’s folly to think this hurts Clinton’s chances if she chooses to run. Tom Bowen, a shrewd Democratic consultant in Chicago, says, “The idea that one of the most popular secretaries of state to serve this country will be damaged by revisions of ‘talking points’ is foolhardy.”

Yes, four Americans killed in a terrorist attack is nothing to be flip about. But voters by and large understand that the world is a dangerous place — and there are plenty of narratives that fall far short of being deemed Nixonian.

There is a desperate lack of perspective in Washington and, quite improbably, the Benghazi episode suggests it’s actually getting worse.


By: James Warren, New York Daily News, May 12, 2013

May 13, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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