In the Arena

Real Diehl on Benghazi

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The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl is usually a reliable, and responsible, advocate for neocon-ish policies in the Middle East. His column today is a rebuke to those trying to make the Benghazi tragedy into a scandal. Indeed, Diehl asserts what should be obvious to any honest observer: there is no scandal here. There was merely inter-agency fol-de-rol concerning talking points. As I’ve written before, talking points seem the primary product of latter-day governance–which is a scandal of a different sort, one which has enveloped every Administration for the past 20 years. If only Presidents were as concerned with managing the government as they are with massaging the message. Diehl compares the current conservative melodrama with the liberal melodrama surrounding the “16 words” about the sale of yellowcake uranium to Saddam Hussein that George W. Bush infamously uttered in a State of the Union message.

Bush was called on this inaccuracy by Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose bottom line was correct but whose details were hyperbolic or incorrect. The current controversy is far more frivolous than the 16 Words. Those words were used to propel us into an injust and obscene war. The talking points in this case, Diehl writes:

…were edited over several drafts to remove references to the extremist militia Ansar al-Sharia and previous attacks in Benghazi. But this was not a cover-up. Instead, the changes were mainly the product of interagency tensions: State thought the CIA, which was mainly responsible for the Benghazi mission, was preempting an FBI investigation and trying to shift blame for the fiasco.

Meanwhile, by the ABC account, every draft of the talking points says that the attacks “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault . . .” That’s what Rice said. It might have been wrong, but it was the intelligence assessment at the time. So what, exactly, is the scandal?

I’m not sure that this completely absolves the Administration, especially the State Department. Electoral politics may have been a consideration–although, in the ecology of internecine knife-fights, the distinctions between spooks and diplomats far surpass the Republican-Democrat divide in bitterness and significance.

In any case, those Republicans seeking to blow this into a major controversy are pursuing a political goal. They have been found utterly empty on the substance of the case. And Diehl’s conclusion is correct: We should be having a serious conversation about the consequences of embassy security in the Middle EAst…just as we should be having a serious national conversation about 501(c)4s and their tendency to slip from policy advocacy to political intervention. But we seem destined to have a spring devoted to toxic partisan spin not substance.