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.

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