Clinton jumps on the Benghazi grenade

CNN's Elise Labott, traveling with Hillary Clinton in Peru, got the secretary of state to make news by stating the obvious: that she is ultimately responsible for the safety of U.S. diplomats.

There's a bit of editorial sleight of hand going on, because the headline quotes her saying "I take responsibility" and then throws in "... for Benghazi" without quotes. So there may be less to this story than meets the eye. Without the full context of her remarks, it's hard to say whether she was really taking the hit for the whole fiasco or not. (The AP has a slightly different version, as does Fox News.)

But hey, it's close enough, and Clinton's comments are obviously going to get wide play and will of course be instantly politicized -- regardless of whether she's merely doing the right thing, or whether she's actually just shielding Obama from scrutiny ahead of Tuesday night's debate, as some are already suggesting, or whether, as the conspiracy-minded would have it, she's pulling some Machiavellian maneuver to appear like she's taking responsibility only to make the president look bad and set herself up for 2016. (Clinton may have unintentionally set Obama up to be more directly attacked, by the way: Three Repubublican senators already have issued a press release saying that the president himself needs to take responsibility.)

Whatever the case, I want to make a couple points about how this Benghazi story is going down.

1) It's a bit rich for all these people to suddenly be arguing that Libya is the most important story in the world after ignoring it for months. It reeks of political opportunism. Did Daryl Issa show any sign that he cared one iota about Libya before the morning of Sept. 12, 2012? Did Mitt Romney?

2) I don't think anyone has a good understanding of what is actually going on in Benghazi. It seems the politics of the place are pretty Byzantine, and the United States has a hard time telling friend from foe. Something doesn't smell right about the February 17 Brigade, the Libyan militia that was responsible for external security at the U.S. consulate. I have my theories, but nothing that's fit to print just yet. One thing I'm sure of: Nobody is telling us the whole story.

3) The Benghazi attack was arguably more of an intelligence failure than it was a security failure. What were all those intelligence folks doing in that annex? Were they so focused on tracking down loose MANPADs that they weren't paying enough attention to the militants next door?

Relatedly: It probably isn't wise for officials like Susan Rice to be pointing fingers at the spooks for handing her talking points that weren't fully accurate, even though it may be fully warranted. Some in the intelligence community are evidently upset, and have been leaking damaging information. Surely there's more where that came from?

4) What about the media's mistakes? Reputable media outlets, including Reuters and the New York Times, initially reported that there was a demonstration, and the Times at least is sticking by its story even though the State Department now says there was no protest at the consulate and footage recovered from that evening shows no such thing.

5) So far, I haven't see any evidence that the Obama administration lied about what happened -- just confusion amid the usual fog of war and poor media management under pressure. Unless I'm missing something, the charge of a "coverup" seems vastly overblown to me. The White House doesn't get involved in security arrangements for U.S. embassies. Are people suggesting that it should?

6) Nobody wants to say it, but Amb. Chris Stevens was a big boy and he made his own decision to go to Benghazi despite the risks. If he thought it was too dangerous, he should not have gone.

7) This crisis could have been a lot worse. For now, it seems the moment has passed and Benghazi was the worst of it. That's a huge relief -- imagine what could happen in a place like Yemen or Pakistan. But further attacks may be in the works, and militant groups have now seen the awesome power of assymetric attacks on U.S. facilities. There will be fresh attempts.

8) The United States can't turn its diplomatic installations into armed camps. U.S. diplomats are going to need to take risks from time to time, and many of them are fully prepared to so. That said, it seems inevitable that this tragedy is going to have precisely the effect the State Department fears: more restrictions on diplomats' movements, more fortress-like facilities, and less interaction with the locals. American diplomacy will be the worse for it -- and that will ultimately make us less safe.

Passport

Note to Candy Crowley: Raise foreign policy at your own risk

Here's the latest testament to the time warp that is today's political news cycle: the Obama and Romney campaigns are reportedly complaining about Candy Crowley's aggressive moderating style -- a day before she moderates the second presidential debate. The criticism centers on comments the CNN anchor has made about asking follow-ups during the town hall-style debate. But there's another flashpoint to watch tomorrow night: What balance will Crowley and debate organizers strike between domestic and foreign policy?

The question is particularly relevant since Martha Raddatz, a senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, has been catching a lot of flak from the right over the past few days for focusing too much on international affairs while moderating the vice presidential debate last week. The critiques come -- interestingly enough -- as a new Public Opinion Strategies/Hart Research Associates poll shows that 47 percent of voters think the candidates aren't talking enough about foreign policy, and particularly about issues such as the endgame in Afghanistan, the state of U.S.-Israeli relations, and the best approach to Iran's nuclear program. 

On Friday, for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks, argued that the prominence of foreign policy at the vice presidential debate did not square with voters' priorities (in poll after poll, jobs and the economy are listed as the top issues in the campaign):

This debate was excessive in its attention to foreign policy -- an arena that is a voting issue for very few. [Paul] Ryan demonstrated amazing fluency, given how little time he has spent working in these areas. 

At Forbes, John Tamny made a similar point:

The shame about the debate was that Martha Raddatz perhaps focused too much on foreign policy. Sorry, but a country full of the war weary, not to mention the economically scared, seemingly wanted a more substantive debate that covered the economic issues more in depth.

In an interview with CNN, Red State's Erick Erickson got more personal, arguing that Raddatz bungled the debate by falling back on her professional expertise:

Her wheelhouse is foreign policy and she devoted probably two-thirds of the debate to foreign policy. When you're debating foreign policy in a vice presidential debate, I guess that's all well and good. But we have this unemployment number, we've gotten the jobs decline, and I just think moderators shouldn't make the focus of the debate their wheelhouse. 

Over at The Transom, Ben Domenech asserted that Raddatz had not only marginalized key issues such as the economy and entitlements but also zeroed in on the Arab world while ignoring other regions and international issues:

[H]er apparent ignorance of domestic policy (she's a foreign correspondent for ABC) led to a remarkable tilt toward international topics. The irony was that this ended up being a surprisingly parochial in focus, confined to the Middle East - she asked no questions about the EU, no questions about China, no questions about trade. For his part, Dan Drezner apologized on behalf of the five percent. http://vlt.tc/icp 

By my tabulation, Raddatz asked more questions about foreign policy, national security, and the Defense budget than all other subjects combined. She asked one question about Medicare but mushed it together with Social Security, the upshot being that most of the answers were focused on Social Security reforms neither candidate has endorsed or even brought up on the trail. She asked, effectively, just one question about the economy - one! - while asking separate questions on Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Koran burning, DOD and the sequester.

The Heartland Institute's Jim Lakely, meanwhile, saw outright favoritism in Raddatz's mix of questions:

Perhaps Raddatz focused more on foreign policy than in a typical VP debate because recent events warranted that, but that's hardly what VPs need to deal with - and it's hard to not think she focused on that because it's supposedly Biden's strength. If Raddatz really wanted to challenge Ryan, she should have gone after him on his budget - which Mitt Romney has only partly embraced. Maybe Raddatz avoided drilling down on this subject because Ryan would have knocked such questions out of the park.

At least one conservative pundit had an entirely different reaction to the vice presidential debate, however. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol observed that while the campaign sparring over the economy increasingly looks like a "draw," foreign policy could prove to be the "election tie-breaker," particularly in light of the Obama administration's response to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. (Indeed, Barack Obama's advantages on foreign policy and national security have taken major hits in recent weeks.)

And voters on the right may agree with Kristol. Forty-seven percent of respondents in that Public Opinion Strategies/Hart Research Associates survey may have said the candidates aren't talking enough about foreign policy, but the partisan split wasn't even. Fifty-three percent of Republicans (and 49 percent of independents) felt they weren't hearing enough about international affairs, compared with 40 percent of Democrats. More discussion of foreign policy on Tuesday night might not be so bad for the GOP after all.

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