Practice, Not Politics: The Republican Party’s Misunderstanding of Benghazi

This is one part of a two part series on Benghazi. The accompanying piece can be found here.

U.S. Senate Republicans have been in uproar over the past few months, culminating recently in the unprecedented filibustering of a Secretary of Defense nomination. At the heart of this Republican grandstanding is the premeditated terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Image courtesy of East Asia and Pacific Media Hub, public domain
Image courtesy of East Asia and Pacific Media Hub, public domain

In the world of the GOP, Benghazi is a political issue, where the President lied to the American people to avoid looking bad. In the real world, Benghazi is a national security issue, where the administration performed to the best of its ability, but which involved real mistakes in American foreign policy making – mistakes which can largely be laid at the feet of Republicans.

Republicans, have attempted to place the blame for this on the Obama administration for not being aware of or responsive to the embassy’s requests for more security. This is not a fair criticism. In hindsight it seems obvious that the consulate should have been better secured, but prioritizing needs of an institution the size of the state department is not easy. Furthermore, at the heart of security issues is a Congressional problem. Congress famously holds the “power of the purse,” making them responsbile for long term security levels at State Department posts. Republicans should look to his own party to assign blame here. The fault lies with Congressional Republicans that the money to properly secure high-threat facilities was not available. Even worse, the local security that was hired to protect the consulate could not be paid. The State Department is underfunded in practically every way, and yet Republicans continue to demand cuts, ignoring the bloated Department of Defense as a national security issue, blind to the fact that the State Department is equally, if not more, important to national security.

Republicans are right to note that events appear different from different sides of the aisle. However, in this case the right is entirely mistaken. At the heart of their argument is the idea that had the Obama administration acknowledged the premeditated nature of the attacks; the election would have shifted into a losing fight for the incumbent and a walk to victory for Mitt Romney. This is the basis of the famed “what difference does it make” comments. There is a difference between a premeditated and a spontaneous attack. There is no difference between the administration knowing which the attack was, or if it publicised it properly. For this to be relevant, Obama would have had to believe that his election would have been at stake because of the attacks. In this line of thought, his administration’s representation of the attacks was deliberately misleading so as to avoid a major election issue. This argument misunderstands both the thought porcesses of American liberals and the nature of American electoral politics.

In order for the administration to have been covering up for their mistakes to prevent electoral defeat, they would first have to believe that Benghazi was an issue that might cause electoral defeat. But it would have been fundamentally impossible for this to become a major election issue given the circumstances of the 2012 presidential election. Incumbents do not lose re-election races unless the economy is staggeringly weak and they are widely viewed as incompetent. Republicans may believe that these things were the case, but comparing Mr. Obama to, say, Jimmy Carter, is not reasonable. The 2012 economy was nowhere near as weak at the time of the Mr. Carter’s campaign, and what’s more the problems Obama faced originated in a previous President’s term. The comparison between the attacks in Benghazi and the Iran Hostage crisis is similarly inaccurate. A single attack is much more likely to create a rally-round-the flag effect. The hostage crisis dragged on for more than a year, and the failed operation to end it had been planned in advance, so the public was correct to place its failure squarely on the administration. Carter’s mistake was not failing to secure the embassy; it was failing to rescue hostages. The insecurity of the Libyan embassy was similarly not a major election issue.

As unfortunate as it may be, foreign affairs is highly unlikely to stop an incumbent President’s reelection bid. Swing voters in swing states do not pay much attention to foreign affairs. National security only becomes an issue when citizens feel threatened or percieve major weakness. The attacks in Benghazi do not remotely approach this sort of problem. There are mistakes that end an incumbent Presidency.  Obama was nowhere near this sort of danger. To balance against the economic recovery Obama presided over, middling as it may have been, Romney needed Obama to make major mistakes, especially if those mistakes were on foreign policy. A surprise attack, even if poorly handled, is not a major administrative mistake.

Mr. Carroll complains about the US diplomatic presence at the consulate in Benghazi rather than the embassy in Tripoli. It is preposterous to assume our diplomats would be anywhere other than where they thought they should be. Diplomacy is a dangerous job; you must go to the people you meet, even in dangerous places. The State Department knows this. Tripoli may be the capital of Libya, but Benghazi is the home of the revolution, and the location of the rebel groups that have the best grip on power in the country. Sitting in Tripoli would not be diplomacy; it would be a ceremony. In Benghazi the State Department could actually get work done.

Despite a variety of attempts, Republicans have not beeen able to get the idea of a Benghazi mistake or coverup to gain traction with the American people. Quite simply, this is because such an event is concieved entirely in the mind of right-wing partisans who believed that Romney had a chance to win the 2012 election and that Benghazi might have sealed the deal. Rather than working to find political missteps, both parties should focus on examining the actual issues surrounding Benghazi: diplomatic security, State Department funding, and the predictive and preventative capabilities of our intelligence apparatus. Anything else is petty politics.

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