Clinton, Obama, Romney and the Benghazi ‘Buck’

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Jorge Luis Baca / Reuters

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech to the media at the government palace in Lima, Peru, Oct. 15, 2012.

Maybe Hillary Clinton reads Swampland. Because on a day when I wrote that, on the question of diplomatic security in Benghazi, “the buck should stop with her” and not the president, Madam Secretary stepped forward to say, “I take responsibility” for inadequate security at the U.S. consulate there on September 11.

More likely, Clinton was responding to the unusual political dynamic that I described, in which Republicans, after years of trashing Hillary at every opportunity, suddenly seem not to remember her name–because in the home stretch of a presidential campaign, it’s Obama they want to attack, not his Secretary of State. Republicans say the idea that the buck should stop with Clinton is too easy. One Republican partisan points me to a White House statement issued on September 10 which describes a briefing at which  “the President and the Principals discussed specific measures we are taking in the Homeland to prevent 9/11 related attacks as well as the steps taken to protect U.S. persons and facilities abroad, as well as force protection.” (Emphasis mine.)

So the White House wanted to claim credit for presidential attention to security detail before the attacks, but now suggests questions of diplomatic security don’t rise to the presidential level. Perhaps there’s some opportunism here. But it’s also totally plausible that the very specific question Republicans and the Romney campaign are driving–concerns about security in Benghazi–never came up in that briefing.

This particular debate, however, feels like it’s missing the forest for the trees. There’s a more important debate about the continued threat of Islamic radicalism and how the Obama administration has managed it. On Fox News today, Romney foreign policy advisor Richard Williamson called the Benghazi attack “evidence that [Obama’s] so-called success in the war on terror wasn’t so successful,” adding that “targeted killings can’t solve this problem.”

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What remains unclear is what Romney would have done much differently. He hasn’t called Obama’s Libyan intervention a mistake. Nor does he say Obama should have propped up Hosni Mubarak against the revolutionary tides that swept the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. Both events have arguably created new opportunities for al Qaeda. But so has, for instance, the supply of arms to Syrian rebels, which Romney wants to accelerate.

On these big questions, the buck definitely stops with the President. But when it comes to explaining clearly how to address these problems, it also stops with Mitt Romney.