Freed from the restraints of a reelection campaign, President Obama responded defiantly to some of the foreign-policy and national-security controversies that have dominated headlines in recent days.
He refused to second-guess the ongoing FBI investigation that led to the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus, despite complaints by some congressional critics that they should have been alerted to the scandal before the election. Obama again labeled as false news reports before the election that the administration was engaged in back-channel, bilateral talks with Iran over a secret deal to end its suspected nuclear program. On Syria, Obama conceded that the situation in that country had "obviously deteriorated" since he called for Bashar Al-Assad to give up power last year, but continued to resist calls from some in Congress to arm a Syrian opposition that includes "extremists elements."
Obama was clearly most incensed, however, by recent pledges from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to block any nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of State because of her comments after an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. McCain has zeroed in on Rice’s contention five days after the attack that the violence resulted from a “spontaneous demonstration” over an anti-Muslim film, as opposed to a premeditated terrorist attack. He has called that characterization either a Watergate-style cover-up or “the worst kind of incompetence.”
Obama was having none of it. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after someone, they should go after me. And I’m happy to have that discussion with them,” Obama told reporters on Wednesday in his first news conference since the election. "But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous."
Obama’s anger may reflect the frustration of his team that the Benghazi story had such legs in the run-up to the election, with conservative pundits painting it as a wide-ranging conspiracy to protect Obama’s counterterrorism bonafides and deny the American public the truth. After Rice’s comments caused such a furor, senior intelligence sources revealed to reporters that Rice was essentially reading from intelligence “talking points” that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had supplied to her the night before. And yet criticism from the right continues to focus on Rice and not Lt. General James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, or Petraeus.
Obama seemed to be driving that point home when he implied the senators were bullies who are picking on Rice because she is barred by diplomatic protocol from forcefully defending herself. “When they go after the U.N. ambassador because they think she is an easy target, then that’s a problem for me,” said an obviously angry Obama. “And if I think she is the best person to serve America in the capacity of secretary of State, then I will nominate her. But that determination has not yet been made.”