What Questions About Benghazi Say About Today’s Political Climate

Partisanship has entered the discussion of a tragedy.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: (L-R) U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell (Retired), former deputy director for the Intelligence and Knowledge Development Directorate (J-2) of U.S. Africa Command and former deputy commanding general of the Joint Task Force Odyssey Guard, Hoover Institution research fellow Kori Schake, Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Program senior associate Frederic Wehrey testify during a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee May 1, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Benghazi, Instability, and a New Government: Successes and Failures of U.S. Intervention in Libya."
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

For polit­ic­al ana­lysts — or at least those who try to be in­de­pend­ent and non­par­tis­an — an oc­cu­pa­tion­al haz­ard is that at al­most any giv­en time, one side or the oth­er will be angry about what you say and write. Dur­ing the run-up to the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, many con­ser­vat­ives and Re­pub­lic­an par­tis­ans were un­happy to hear me say that a win­nable race was slip­ping away from them, some be­liev­ing all the way to Elec­tion Day that they would win. In 2010, and now in 2014, it is Demo­crats who are less than thrilled with our pro­gnost­ic­a­tions.

An­oth­er oc­cu­pa­tion­al haz­ard is cyn­icism. Elec­ted of­fi­cials and can­did­ates, along with their hand­lers, say and do things that I am pretty sure they know bet­ter than to do. Or ought to know bet­ter than to do. They at least know that there is an­oth­er im­port­ant side to every story, es­pe­cially when they de­cide to leave out per­tin­ent facts as they heave rhet­or­ic­al red meat to their party’s base. They do what they feel they need to do to max­im­ize their chances of win­ning, even if fair­ness or truth get a little bent in the pro­cess. A by-product of this tend­ency to bend the truth is that the pub­lic, or at least the slice that re­lies ex­clus­ively on ideo­lo­gic­al voices and sources for their news, can get an aw­fully one-sided per­spect­ive.

Fre­quent ques­tions have aris­en of late, mostly from con­ser­vat­ives, about the tra­gic killing of four Amer­ic­ans in Benghazi. These people have heard ques­tions raised on cable tele­vi­sion, and they haven’t heard or read sat­is­fact­ory an­swers to why and how the tragedy happened. I have no doubt that their con­cerns and ques­tions are sin­cere.

I also have no doubt that things could have been done to pre­vent the hor­rible in­cid­ent and that, in ret­ro­spect, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and polit­ic­al ap­pointees, as well ca­reer civil ser­vants and mem­bers of the mil­it­ary, wished they had handled some things dif­fer­ently. But many ask­ing the ques­tions seem un­aware of cer­tain facts and points of view. Last March, when Face the Na­tion mod­er­at­or Bob Schief­fer asked former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates about Benghazi, Gates, who had left his post 14 months be­fore the at­tacks oc­curred, said, “Frankly, had I been in the job at the time, I think my de­cisions would have been just as theirs were.” Keep­ing in mind that Gates had been ini­tially ap­poin­ted by Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and, in his book Duty: Mem­oirs of a Sec­ret­ary at War, was un­spar­ing in his cri­ti­cism of Pres­id­ent Obama and many ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cisions, this in­form­a­tion is something that people deeply con­cerned about Benghazi don’t seem to know, have for­got­ten, or con­veni­ently ig­nore.

Gates went on to say that cer­tain people seem to have a “car­toon­ish” view of mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies in such situ­ations:

“I’ve heard, ‘Well, why didn’t you just fly a fight­er jet over and try and scare ‘em with the noise or something?’ Well, giv­en the num­ber of sur­face-to-air mis­siles that have dis­ap­peared from [Muam­mar el-] Qad­dafi’s ar­sen­als, I would not have ap­proved send­ing an air­craft — a single air­craft — over Benghazi un­der those cir­cum­stances. And with re­spect to send­ing in spe­cial forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I have read, people really didn’t know what was go­ing on in Benghazi con­tem­por­an­eously. And to send some small num­ber of spe­cial forces or oth­er troops in without know­ing what the en­vir­on­ment is, without know­ing what the threat is, without hav­ing any in­tel­li­gence in terms of what is ac­tu­ally go­ing on on the ground, I think, would have been very dan­ger­ous.”

The cyn­icism comes when one re­calls an even great­er tragedy that oc­curred on Oct. 23, 1983, when the Mar­ine bar­racks in Beirut, Le­ban­on, were bombed dur­ing Ron­ald Re­agan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. In the latest New York­er, Jane May­er writes about hav­ing been in Beirut as a re­port­er for The Wall Street Journ­al at the time of the hor­rible bomb­ing, when 241 Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary per­son­nel, in­clud­ing 220 Mar­ines, were killed in the largest single-day loss of Mar­ines since Iwo Jima in World War II. Al­though Demo­crats con­trolled the House and Tip O’Neill was speak­er, there was little par­tis­an grand­stand­ing over the tragedy, even though mis­takes were made. As May­er notes, a gate was left open, and the per­son­nel on guard were un­der or­ders to keep their weapons un­loaded. Con­gress con­duc­ted a mat­ter-of-fact, brief in­vest­ig­a­tion, re­com­mend­a­tions were made, and every­one moved on. Scor­ing polit­ic­al points was not the name of the game, even though the loss of Amer­ic­an lives was more than 50 times great­er than in Benghazi. It was a dif­fer­ent era.

One won­ders how some of these con­ser­vat­ives would have re­acted to such cir­cum­stances. Se­lect­ive out­rage is rampant in our polit­ic­al pro­cess today. The facts are too of­ten swept to one side, or un­der the rug, for polit­ic­al pur­poses.

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