In the Arena

The Benghazi Circus

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Well, I’ve been on a desert island since the election–and I return to find the tawdry sadness of David Petraeus‘ resignation after a lifetime of service to our country. And the even more tawdry attempts by various Republicans to create a scandal over the tragic deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in the Benghazi terror attack.

Let me just repeat this flat out: there is no scandal here–except for the reprehensible behavior of politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have conducted a scurrilous campaign against Ambassador Susan Rice. (Even their usually knee-jerk amigo Senator Joe Lieberman has refused to join them in this jihad). I tried to catch up on all the hoo-hah since returning from the beach and it seems to me that Rice’s talking points were accurate, if vague, in the way that talking points usually are.

There were two attacks in Benghazi that night. The first was a spontaneous response to the anti-Islamic film that had caused similar protests in Cairo and elsewhere. That is important: there would have been no terrorist attack if the film hadn’t provided the opportunity for mayhem. Most of the protesters were members of local salafist militias, who quickly realized that the security at the consulate was nearly nonexistent. They organized a second attack with heavier weapons, including mortars. And so we have four essential facts that do not contradict one another:

1. the attack was a spontaneous reaction to the film

2. it was followed by an organized attack.

3. both attacks were populated and organized by terrorist militias, with loose ties to Al-Qaeda.

4. security at the consulate was inadequate

So there are two questions: Did the Obama Administration make a political decision to coverup the (rather tenuous) Al-Qaeda involvement? And why was the security so lax?

Answer to question 1: Ambassador Rice’s talking points were scrubbed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to CBS. The specific names of the militias involved were removed for security reasons, apparently, so that our intelligence assets on the ground could continue to monitor the miscreants. This is a minor, silly point in any case: the President called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” the day after it took place–which proved a rather embarrassing moment for Mitt Romney in the third debate, when Candy Crowley corrected him on the point (Romney’s information throughout the campaign was defective, having been sourced by right-wing fantasy reports). There was no coverup.

Answer to Question 2: According to a really excellent piece by Bob Worth in the New York Times magazine last Sunday, the level of security in Benghazi was determined by…Ambassador Chris Stevens:

In the rush to assign blame after Stevens’s death, it was largely overlooked that Stevens, as the top-ranking diplomat in Libya by that point, was the one responsible for making final decisions about what kind of security was appropriate there, how to use it and what qualified as safe and unsafe.

Worth wasn’t blaming Stevens. He was admiring him for trying to practice the sort of hands-on diplomacy that has become more difficult in the era of terrorism and amped-security. Indeed, Worth was raising a larger and very important question–what sort of risks should we ask our diplomats to take? It is a question that hits very close to home for me since, as some of you may know, I’m the father of an American diplomat who has served in difficult places, including a year in Baghdad.

It is also the sort of question that John McCain might have asked back in the days when he was an honorable public servant. But he’s now a political caricature, severely debilitated by anger and envy. His trigger-happy foreign policy beliefs have always been questionable, but this Benghazi crusade has put in the weird circle inhabited by nutcases and conspiracy theorists like Michele Bachmann and Allen West. He should honor the memory of those who lost their lives that terrible night by putting a cork in his disgraceful behavior immediately.