Rally-around-the-flag time is over. For the most part, Republicans — with the exception of Mitt Romney — had held their fire in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. But as questions emerge about how the Libya attack, in particular, went down, Republicans are starting to criticize the Obama Administration for not anticipating the violence and not doing enough to secure Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Republicans almost universally reacted with skepticism and scorn after a briefing on Thursday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. “They’re trying to cover their behinds,” Representative Bill Flores, a Texas Republican, told The Hill upon leaving the House briefing. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, echoed the sentiment: “That is the most useless, worthless briefing I have attended in a long time.”
In the days following the attacks, the White House at first said it believed the attack in Benghazi in eastern Libya that claimed Stevens’ life was spontaneous, born of protests over an inflammatory California-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sept. 16.
The Administration has since changed course and now admits the attack may have been preplanned. Clinton told Senators on Thursday that she believed it was “self-evident” that it was a terrorist attack. “It seems like it was obvious [there was] some element of preplanning, but how far in advance, that’s hard to say,” Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters. Though, all three briefers were careful to underline that there had been no chatter or warning of an attack, despite six recent al-Qaeda-linked incidents — not aimed at the U.S. — in Benghazi in recent weeks.
Republicans say the Administration potentially dropped the ball in Libya, not doing enough to prevent a terrorist attack that claimed American lives. Some have even likened President Obama’s response as more deer-in-headlights than George W. Bush’s blank stare when told about the twin-tower attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 while reading a book to children. Obama, they note, has admitted to skipping some of his daily intelligence briefings. The Administration did not do enough to secure weapons in Libya following the fall of Gaddafi, they say, and sent in U.S. diplomatic personnel with inadequate security.
The GOP criticism may be fueled by public reaction to the Middle East debacle. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sept. 18 found Obama’s foreign policy approval rating among registered voters to be at 49%, down from 54% a month earlier. Among independents that fall was steeper, down to 41% from 53% a month prior.
Until the attacks, Republicans have had trouble denting Obama’s strength on foreign policy. Obama, after all, had approved the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and his policies are pretty much in line with those of George W. Bush. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has had a tough time going to Obama’s right on almost any foreign policy issue. And Romney has also suffered from a ham-handed approach to the subject. A Reuters/Ipsos poll out on Sept. 18 found that four in 10 voters felt less favorably toward Romney following his far-too-early and ill-conceived criticism of the attacks. Romney has said little more about the Libya attack other than underlining the importance of bringing the killers to justice. Whether he echoes his GOP colleagues’ criticisms remains to be seen.