Political Opportunism's Grim Turn
(11/2012) In Maryland we're relatively insulated from the fiercest elements of the presidential campaigns, aside from the occasional television ads straying over from Virginia. By now, though,
election-weariness is setting in and we're all looking forward to November 7. Ordinary citizens aren't the only ones, either. Congress, the Pentagon, and other government agencies have had to put business on hold in recent weeks
because nothing can be said on the record without being seized for political gain. One issue that is set to be addressed after the election is the September 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which
is now scheduled to be investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee starting November 15.
This, however, has not stopped the Romney campaign, the GOP, or other right-wing personalities from demanding "answers" from the Obama administration as to what was known, when, and by whom. Instead, they
have let fly a number of accusations labeling the administration at best incompetent and at worst complicit in the attack that took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and three other embassy staff. It's a disingenuous and cynical
attempt to invent a scandal leading into Election Day to tarnish the President's foreign policy record.
The general line of attack has several parts, of which most are either false, unclear, or inconsistent. The argument goes: 1) The administration was aware of threats to the consulate beforehand but failed
to implement sufficient security to prevent or repel the attack, 2) The administration "apologized" for American values rather than condemning the attack and calling it a terrorist act, 3) It implausibly blamed the attack on an
obscure YouTube video rather than calling it an organized terrorist plot, and 4) That it did so in order to mislead the public for political gain, and in spite of having received intelligence linking the attack to terrorism.
The first point is the strongest, and the one that will be properly investigated in due course starting this month. Was this an intelligence failure, a security failure, or a political one? These are not
partisan questions, but practical ones of what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. It is possible that, given the limitations of our intelligence gathering operations and our limited resources for securing diplomatic
installations everywhere at all times, this may not have been reasonably preventable. Last year while visiting Morocco I saw how difficult it is to balance security needs with diplomatic openness. Even the non-political USAID
office in this US-friendly country had imposing security measures, and the embassy in the capital of Rabat looked like a multi-layered, windowless fortress on a hill--not a welcoming image for America's diplomatic presence.
As for the administration's supposed failures to implement security measures that had been requested, the facts have shown that even if all of them had been enacted, it would not have prevented the
attack. Additional security forces had been requested for the embassy in Tripoli, some 400 miles from Benghazi, and would nevertheless have been an insufficient force to repel the heavily armed attackers. The broader question,
then, is whether it was prudent to have the diplomatic mission there in the first place. That's a difficult call to make, considering our interest in helping to shape Libya's future.
The "apologizing for America's values" line has been used less frequently lately for two good reasons: first, because transcripts clearly show the Obama administration flatly condemned the acts of
violence in the region from the start, and second, because it risks reminding people of the Romney campaign's shamefully hasty press release issued the evening of Sept. 11 that falsely accused the administration of sympathizing
with the attackers. The Romney campaign's "apology tour" line is popular with his base, but it's simply wrong, and in this context, immorally so.
In the weeks since widespread protests throughout the Middle East over the supposedly obscure YouTube video, "The Innocence of Muslims," have died down, right-wing commentators have come to pretend that
the video was an absurd thing to blame for sparking the attack. It was not. The viral spread of that video was spontaneous and caught the Western world by surprise. It had led to unrest in the region, and unrest there has
historically opened the door for acts of violence. For lack of better data at the time, it was reasonable to suspect a link. In any case, it is unclear what difference, if any, it would have made had the administration been
quicker to label the event an organized terrorist attack. The military and governmental response would have been the same.
The argument continues, though, that the American public was not just uninformed or misinformed, but that it was actively misled for political purposes. To what end? The Obama administration has been
unceasingly aggressive against al Qaeda militants and leadership through drone strikes, so much so that even liberal supporters are uneasy with its strategy, which generally follows the course set by President Bush. There is no
case to be made for Obama being weak when it comes to hunting terrorists. (It's also interesting to note that in 2004 the tables were turned: paranoid skeptics on the far-left worried Bush would allow some attack to occur right
before the election to frighten people into sticking with the incumbent.)
Juan Williams, a Fox News contributor, dismissed the GOP's argument in an op-ed for The Hill: "Once the political spin stops, the bottom line is there is no evidence so far to support the Romney camp’s
claim of incompetence or a cover-up by the administration…This is one political strategy that is based on deliberate misinformation about the Benghazi assault." Political opportunism is to be expected in campaign season,
especially one this close. But this false scandal is an abhorrent exploitation of four individuals who gave their lives serving their country and its interests in a region struggling to escape a legacy of authoritarianism. They
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