Benghazi, the 2016 US presidential campaign’s first battle

Readers could reasonably be excused for thinking the 2016 US presidential campaign was still years away. Nevertheless, seeds for this battle were already planted back in September 2012 – and they may just be breaking through to the surface. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The impetus for this, of course, was set in motion when an assault on the temporary facility housing the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya led to the death of the US ambassador and three staff members – and then gained further traction from the way the Obama administration handled the event and its immediate aftermath. Now, the Republican Party – seemingly stymied on various domestic policy fronts and frequently back footed in various public opinion polls – is now betting that its tough, aggressive stance on Benghazi could propel it back into increasing public favour, and thereby boost its election chances.

How has it happened that a fatal incident in a chaotic Libya last year has become the new poster child for a resurgent Republican Party and a consequently wounded Obama presidency? – or at least so Republican politicians hope. And how is it that same incident – and some presumed spin doctoring over it – became a fraught part of the end game of the 2012 presidential campaign? And will the legacy of Benghazi fatally mar the country’s recollection of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, taking the wind out of the sails of her presumptive front-runner status for the presidency in 2016 – even before she decides if she wants to run for the job? Together, these questions may be coming together as Washington’s big story, threatening to overwhelm even fierce, partisan budget issues.

Now this drip drip drip of information about one terrible night in Libya has suddenly been enhanced by the disclosure of the changes in the briefing notes for senior officials at the insistence of the State Department and various White House staffers. This, in turn, is fuelling increasingly shrill Republican arguments and the inevitable television and Internet ads aimed at revving up the party’s conservative base – and cutting down to size the Democrats’ early favourite for president in 2016. (Settling on Clinton early on would prevent an ugly intra-party scramble for that race, allowing the party to concentrate on fundraising and energising its potential voter base rather than a debilitating primary season.) Conversely, Benghazi is now giving some would-be candidates for the Republicans’ own nomination a ready-made soapbox to ignite their own putative candidacies and position themselves as tough but principled critics of the Obama administration – simultaneously differentiating themselves from other potential nomination challengers, and giving them the energy to reinforce their party for the battles to come.

Of course it remains unclear just how long the legs are on this particular issue. Veteran political strategists are telling the media that they remain uncertain about the staying power of Benghazi to impact on the mid-term congressional elections next year, let alone a general election that is still nearly four years off in the future. There is always the old adage that a year is a lifetime in politics that is true with a vengeance in this case – what with the circumstances of the budget, federal debt, economic recovery, employment numbers and other domestic issues still up in the air. Nevertheless, despite months of trying hard, Democrats continue to struggle in moving the political focus beyond the impact of that attack on the American consulate on the night of 11 September.

Over the past several months, Democrats have continued to insist that an independent inquiry, the dismissal of several State Department officials, and nine separate congressional hearings have collectively meant that there was precious little new to say on the matter. But then, last week, the unexpected release of administration communications on the incident became the kind of thing that gives conservative activists what they insist is the real red meat of a major scandal – if not the smoking gun of administration incompetence – or worse.

These now-revealed communications show senior State Department officials pushed for changes in the administration talking points US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice used a few days after the Benghazi attacks for her marathon weekend of appearances on those all-important Sunday television news talk shows on the major networks. In pushing for the changes, the resulting modulations show senior officials expressing concerns Congress might well use any signs of regret or weakness to slam the Obama administration for ignoring various warnings of a growing fundamentalist Islamic terrorist threat in Libya.

All along, White House senior officials had insisted they made only cosmetic, stylistic alterations to the talking points prepared by the intelligence community. And in her television appearances, Rice seemed to be arguing that spontaneous protests over the anti-Islamic video that had triggered an assault on the US Embassy in Cairo had also set off the Benghazi attack. However, these newly-available details seem to point to a particularly high degree of political sensitivity from those editing the talking points – and, in particular, doing this in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

While Rice and other administration officials eventually publicly acknowledged the Benghazi attack had been a premeditated terrorist attack, Republican politicians are arguing Rice’s TV comments five days after the attack were just the beginning of an orchestrated effort by the Obama administration to mislead. Most recently, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – a man who almost certainly is going to contest for the nomination in 2016 – wrote in The Washington Times that Obama should have fired Clinton as a result of the attack and the aftermath. And in a speech in Iowa (the site of the first presidential preference caucus, don’t forget), Paul said he thinks Benghazi “precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office”. Meanwhile, a conservative political action organisation, American Crossroads, has released a 90-second video asking if Clinton was “part of a cover-up” – and the video also asks for, surprise, surprise, political contributions to aid the organisation’s cause.

Still, while Benghazi would seem to offer Republicans opportunities, there are also challenges. It may be difficult or impossible for voters to distil the messy chronology to assess blame or even follow the logic of the GOP’s complicated arguments. And its accusations about the shifting wording of the post-attack talking points would seem to have virtually nothing to do with any action that might have prevented the deaths in the first place, effectively robbing the GOP of a presumed moral high ground. Moreover, Democrats keep pointing to the fact that an independent inquiry has already determined the State Department badly mishandled security needs in Libya and it blamed officials up to the level of assistant secretary of state for those mistakes.

In response to such views, Republican strategists like Kyle Downey say Benghazi has exposed a vein of Democratic weakness that can be exploited further. In this way, they can challenge the larger questions of the competence, truthfulness and judgment of Clinton, Obama and the rest of the president’s administration. Other strategists say Benghazi may ultimately have more traction for Republican candidates in next year’s congressional elections as they use the charges to rev up their base and – most especially – their donors, and thereby fend off possible primary challenges from more extreme right-wing candidates.

But Democrat political consultants like Doug Thornell argue, “Republicans are a desperate party right now, trying to do whatever they can to dirty up the president to make some gains in 2014, and to dirty up Secretary Clinton because they’re terrified she’ll walk into the White House. This is an attempt to keep their base together and motivated” after Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. And White House press secretary Jay Carney told the media last week, “The whole effort here by Republicans to find some hidden mystery comes to nothing because the president called it an act of terror.”

Still, Benghazi will likely remain a raging topic among conservative circles, in many more conservative regions and on the right-wing talk shows for months ahead. At Wednesday’s hearing last week on this topic by the House of Representatives’ oversight and government reform committee, chaired by California Republican congressman Darrell Issa, Wyoming Republican congresswoman Cynthia Lummis had told the relatives of the four Americans who were killed in Benghazi that her constituents “think about you all the time”.

The AP reported that Issa “is asking a veteran diplomat and a former chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff for sworn testimony about their investigation into the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Issa planned on Monday to seek depositions from retired ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen. Issa, who is leading Republicans’ investigations into the attacks on a State Department consulate last September, said he wants to know with whom the pair spoke to reach their conclusion that the then-secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, did not direct the response to the pair of night-time attacks in Libya. ‘This is a failure, it needs to be investigated. Our committee can investigate. Now, ambassador Pickering, his people and he refused to come before our committee,’ Issa said Sunday.” Pickering, however, has disputed that last statement.

Meanwhile, although some Republicans are insisting the Obama administration should have sent in the Marines, attacked the assault by fighter jets based in Italy or done something even more drastic, people like former secretary of defense Robert Gates (a man who has served both Republicans and Democrats) has argued otherwise. According to Gates, given how and at the speed the events in Benghazi ultimately played out, and the kinds of ordnance and personnel available at the time, sadly, the Obama administration essentially acted correctly. 

Not surprisingly, Democratic Party politicians have generally risen to the defence of the Obama administration and former secretary of state Clinton. As Senator Diane Feinstein of California said on Sunday’s Meet the Press TV news discussion show, “My concern is when Hillary Clinton’s name is mentioned 32 times in a hearing, then the point of the hearing is to discredit the secretary of state, who has very high popularity and may well be a candidate for president.”

However, not all traditional Democratic Party supporters have been as full- throated in their support of the Obama administration. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, for example, “The administration’s behaviour before and during the attack in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, was unworthy of the greatest power on earth. After his Libyan intervention, President Obama knew he was sending diplomats and their protectors into a country that was no longer a country, a land rife with fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda. Yet in this hottest of hot spots, the State Department’s minimum security requirements were not met, requests for more security were rejected, and contingency plans were not drawn up, despite the portentous date of 9/11 and cascading warnings from the CIA, which had more personnel in Benghazi than State did and vetted the feckless Libyan Praetorian Guard. When the Pentagon called an elite Special Forces team three hours into the attack, it was training in Croatia… Hillary Clinton and ambassador Chris Stevens were rushing to make the flimsy Benghazi post permanent as a sign of good faith with Libyans, even as it sat ringed by enemies. The hierarchies at State and Defense had a plodding response, failing to make any superhuman effort as the siege waxed and waned over eight hours.”

However, charges from some vociferous quarters that the consulate should have been guarded by Marines who could have “John Wayned” their way out of that attack fail to understand the actual role of Marines at diplomatic installations. Despite common assumptions, they are not an ambassador’s personal bodyguard. Instead, international diplomatic practice is that the ultimate safety of a consulate or embassy is the responsibility of the host government – and that personal security details are rarely capable of holding off a full assault with heavy weaponry, despite Hollywood. Lost in the shuffle, too, has been the awkward fact that Republican lawmakers who have been in the forefront of criticism have also been on record voting against enhanced security budgets for embassies and consulate.

With all this huffing and puffing on the go, rather larger and more complex issues like the future of Libya’s increasingly unstable regime; the way in which the US will – or can – engage with the aftermath of the Arab spring in Libya and the rest of the region; and how American diplomatic facilities and staff can be simultaneously safe and secure as well as accessible to the people in the countries they are assigned to have all taken a distinct back seat to the current furore. And the rumblings over Benghazi’s impact on future elections are in the forefront instead. Politics, indeed. DM

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Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pauses while testifying on the September attacks on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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