Trying to Understand Benghazi!
A theory on why Benghazi will not die as a political issue.
Look: the best argument one can have for the outrage is what John McCain tried on MTP: point out that four American died in the attack. This fact has led many, including pedantic commenters on this blog (as well as national commentators), to note that, therefore, Benghazi is more significant than Watergate since, after all, no one died as a result of Watergate!
By this standard (the death of Americans) we are steeped in scandals: from highway traffic deaths to the Iraq war and anything else that leads to the death of Americans. As such, it is a lousy standard.
Of the various problems of this view is one of timeline and causation. The “scandal” of Benghazi, as best I can tell, is that there is an alleged cover-up about the response to the attack, not a cover-up about events leading up to the attack. McCain, for example, on the aforementioned MTP appearance noted that a key question is “‘What did the president do and who did he talk to the night of the attack on Benghazi?'”
But, of course, the attack did not happen because of anything the President did, or did not, do after the attack started. He went on to complain about events after the attack:
McCain continued: “Why did the president for two weeks, for two weeks during the heat of the campaign continue to say he didn’t know whether it was a terrorist attack or not? Is it because it interfered with the line ‘Al Qaeda has [been] decimated’? And ‘everything’s fine in that in that part of the world’? Maybe. We don’t know. But we need the answers. Then we’ll reach conclusions. But we have not received the answers. And that’s a fact.”
I could be more excited about the scandalosity of it all if the argument was that there was some definitive error or decision prior to the attack that could be blamed for the outcome that was being covered up. Yet, this is not the argument. Yes, there was some discussion of an e-mail requesting more security (in Tripoli, in fact, IIRC) but that is not where Graham and McCain are focusing their claims.
To add another voice to mine in this discussion, the Department of Political Science at Troy University hosted a guest a few weeks ago with specific insight into these events, former Ambassador David Dunford. Dunford was a career foreign service officer who was, among other things, Ambassador to Oman in the early 1990s and Deputy Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1988-1992). As such, he is well-versed in both serving the US government in a diplomatic capacity, and in the Middle East specifically. In a public talk he gave at the University he noted that he knew Chris Stevens personally and that Stevens was doing what Stevens did: working hard to make connections in the country where he was representing the US. Further, he noted that Stevens knew the risks and would have seen Benghazi as a second home and hence it was surprising that he traveled there with the a relatively small entourage. Dunford saw the attack as tragic, but also as something that was not preventable in any practical way. He noted that, in fact, it is not in the interest of the US for its ambassadors to live in fortresses utterly safe from all harm, and good diplomacy requires the assumption of some level of risk. (And, of course as we know, this was not the first time a US ambassador was killed on duty, let alone the first time and American consulate or embassy was attacked).
Dunford also confirmed what I assumed to be the case: requests for more security are fairly are quite common from embassies and that it is impossible, and perhaps not even desirable, to provide as much security as is requested.
(And yes, one former ambassador’s views are just that—but they carry more weight to me than do a lot of bloggers and commenters out there who are certain that they know how these things are supposed to work, but clearly do not).
In truth: I have yet to see a reasonable assessment of the event in Benghazi that explains why it should be considered a scandal. I can accept the need to assess the event in the hopes of understanding exactly what happened and to learn how to avoid such events in the future. This is a long way from it being a scandal.
Data from the Pew Research Center suggest not every voter is following this story equally. In November, Pew found that Republicans were twice as likely to follow Benghazi closely as Democrats or independents.
That could be because conservative media hammered the story nonstop. But the discrepancy suggests that this rallying cry could be effective at ginning up the base without driving away people on the other side, who may not be paying attention.
Drum goes on:
If you’re going to make fundraising hay out of a pseudo-scandal, it’s actually better if you focus on something that the rest of the world thinks is too ridiculous to bother following. Not only does this help with the fundraising pitch—the liberal media is part of the cover-up!—but you don’t lose independent votes since non-wingnuts have simply tuned the whole thing out.
This makes as much sense as anything else: that the whole thing is cynical politics. And no, this is hardly a revelation. The interesting thing, really, is the empirical confirmation in the Shapiro piece that the story is predominantly a GOP-centric media-wise that is being ignored far more by others (given the lack of new news about the story). Really, the only “news” about Benghazi of late is that many in the GOP are still complaining about Benghazi.
This does lend yet more additional evidence to the notion that one’s worldview is shaped by the media one consumes. Of course, as Drum notes, the true believers will agree with this statement because they will see it as an indictment of the dreaded MSM. However, this ignores that the main usefulness of this story is that it is a means of criticizing the Obama administration, not actually addressing a concrete set of questions. Further: while I understand that cover-ups, by definition, exist in the context of insufficient information because it is, well, being covered-up. However, at some point the lack of information may be the direct result of that information not existing—especially if there is no evidence of some sort of cover up.
To borrow from, and build on something Shapiro notes in the story (but is not quote above), Benghazi has the feel of catchphrases that are supposed to capture some clear, obvious, and all-encompassing description of the Obama administration. Shapiro notes Solyndra (and Obamacare) and I would add Fast and Furious. Now, the administration was actually able to appropriate Obamacare for its own uses, but the others, while failures or problematic in some way, are simply insufficient to be comprehensive critiques. And yet, they become almost folk legends that are, at one time or another, supposedly going to result in impeachment (or something—they certainly did not prevent re-election).
The problem is this for the GOP: such rantings are all well and good when they are ratings-grabbers for primetime chat shows. However, they are driving the behavior of leaders of the party and interfering with rather important issues, such as who should lead the Department of Defense and the CIA. Would not McCain, Graham, etc. be more efficacious legislators if they focused on real problems (or which we have many?). To me this is all about an ongoing lack of seriousness about governing within the GOP in recent years.
This is not good for the country.