By Eugene Robinson
Those who are trying to make the Benghazi tragedy into a scandal for the Obama administration really ought to decide what story line they want to sell.
Actually, by “those” I mean Republicans and by “the Obama administration” I mean Hillary Clinton. The only coherent purpose I can discern in all of this is to sully Clinton’s record as secretary of state in case she runs for president in 2016.
That’s not a particularly noble way to use the deaths of four American public servants, but at least it’s understandable. Attempts to concoct some kind of sinister Whitewater-style conspiracy, however, don’t even begin to make sense.
The hearing convened Wednesday by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., produced a riveting narrative of the chaotic events in Libya last September. But what was the supposedly unforgiveable crime?
Did Clinton’s State Department fail to provide adequate security for the U.S. consulate in Benghazi? In retrospect, obviously so. But the three diplomats who testified at the hearing gave no evidence that this failure sprang from anything other than the need to use limited resources as efficiently as possible.
House Republicans who voted to cut funding for State Department security should understand that their philosophy—small government is always better—has consequences. Bureaucrats have to make judgment calls. Sometimes they will be wrong.
Is the scandal supposed to be that a four-man Special Forces team was not sent from Tripoli to help defend the Benghazi compound? This is a decision that clearly still haunts and enrages Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, who sat helplessly in the capital while Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were being killed at the consulate 650 miles away.
But the decision not to dispatch troops was made by the military chain of command, not by Clinton or anyone who reported to her. Superior officers decided this team was needed to help evacuate the embassy in Tripoli, which was seen as a potential target for a Benghazi-style attack.
The Pentagon has concluded that the team, in any event, could not have arrived in Benghazi in time to make a difference. Hicks testified that he disagrees. It is difficult not to feel his pain. But it is also difficult, frankly, to believe he knows more about deploying troops than do the professionals.
Well, then, maybe the transgression is that administration officials, for some unfathomable reason, willfully lied when they said the attack was in reaction to an anti-Islam video produced in the United States and disseminated on the Internet.
The problem is that there were, in fact, tumultuous anti-American demonstrations taking place in cities throughout the Muslim world because of the video. President Obama labeled the Benghazi assault an act of terror almost immediately—as Mitt Romney learned in the second presidential debate—but it was hard to imagine that the attack was completely unrelated to what was happening in Cairo, Tunis, Khartoum and Jakarta.
The Obama administration was eager to make clear, as George W. Bush tried to do many times, that the United States is not fighting a war against Islam. The administration was slow to recognize that the uproar over the video, at most, provided the opportune moment for a well-planned, highly organized terrorist attack involving heavy weapons. This was an error, but it makes no sense as a deliberate attempt to deceive. What would be the motive? To cover up the facts and maximize the administration’s embarrassment once the truth finally came out?
Maybe that’s it: a cover-up. Perhaps the administration conspired to hide Clinton’s failure to protect our diplomats overseas. But she commissioned an independent report by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering that said—well, I’ll just quote Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House intelligence committee:
“The Pickering Report appears to make clear what we already knew, that there was strategic warning from the intelligence community of a dangerous security environment in Benghazi and that our diplomats were failed by the bureaucracy at the State Department.”
Was Hicks “demoted” for blowing the whistle on Benghazi, as he testified? He asked to come home, understandably, and the department parked him in a desk job—with the same pay and rank—until something more to his liking comes open. Has he been muzzled? Hardly, as evidenced by his testimony Wednesday.
I can only hope that Issa’s witch hunt leads to better security for our brave diplomats. Even the cheapest political stunt can have a silver lining.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Tripoli, Libya, in 2011.