The Benghazi booby trap
The murder by Islamist terrorists of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks has become one of the most contentious issues in the election. The administration has been flailing around, unsure of its facts, offering statements that turned out to be misleading. Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, have jumped on the errors by the State Department and the CIA that contributed to the confusion over our understanding of the slaughter in Benghazi, and backed an unrelenting press campaign attempting to show Barack Obama as either incompetent, a liar, or both.
Yet, despite six weeks of heavy pounding on Obama’s approach to terrorism and national security, an issue that in the past has occupied Americans as a top priority, the president’s reputation remains largely unscathed and, according to polls, voters still consider him more suited than Mitt Romney to run America’s foreign and security policies. Why has such a virulent campaign to discredit Obama’s record as commander-in-chief so conspicuously failed?
When John McCain first commented on the death of his friend Ambassador Stevens, he was careful with his words. After a wild accusation by Mitt Romney condemning the U.S. embassy in Cairo for blaming anti-western mob violence across the Arab world on a video that made fun of the prophet Mohammad, the senator from Arizona was reluctant to apportion blame for the American deaths. Asked on Sept. 13 about the administration’s response to the killings, he said: “I think it was fine. By the way, Secretary of State Clinton gave a marvelous statement today.” By last weekend, however, he was accusing the administration of “either cover-up or gross — the worst kind of incompetence, which doesn’t qualify the president as commander in chief.”
In the intervening six weeks there has been a dogged attempt to determine exactly who killed the ambassador and his men and why the administration at first gave the impression it was part of a general demonstration against the blasphemous video, but later under pressure conceded it was a carefully planned and poignant Sept. 11 attack by Islamists. Leading the charge against the president’s competence is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and New York Post, though CNN has also persistently questioned what went wrong in Benghazi, at the State Department, and at Langley.
Despite the campaign of denigration, a month after the murders voters were evenly split on whether they approved of the president’s handling of the attack, with opinions divided almost entirely on party grounds. Independents tilted slightly towards disapproval. Poll evidence suggests that on the Benghazi attack Fox has been preaching to the choir. While Republicans have taken a keen interest in learning the details, Democrats are not engaged, and Independents remain split. More significantly, surveys show that despite attempts to lay the Benghazi deaths at Obama’s door, since Sept. 11 there has been no shift in the numbers saying they prefer Obama to Romney when it comes to foreign affairs and national security. And Obama still has a significant lead when it comes to who voters trust to counter terrorism and who they would prefer to lead them into a crisis.
Last weekend, McCain described the confusion surrounding the Benghazi deaths as “as bad as Watergate.” But there is a difference between the meticulous and often tediously thorough journalistic method of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and the rash and clumsy allegations made by Fox contributors whose motive appears to be merely to discredit the president come what may. Typical of Fox’s forceful criticism of the president, who is held personally responsible for the deaths, was the network’s legal expert (and Fox boss Roger Ailes’s personal attorney) Peter Johnson Jr., who prefaced one line of inquiry with the words, “Did we trade off — and I have no evidence for this – did we trade off the lives of our ambassador and three others for that crowd?”
Just as there is a “Murdoch discount” for News Corp. shares, on account of Murdoch’s buccaneer approach to business morality, so there is a “Murdoch discount” attached to Fox News reports. Its “Fair and Balanced” motto has long been an LOL line among journalists worldwide, but in the case of the Benghazi attacks, Fox News’s reputation for misconstruing facts and waging poisonous ad hominem smears has counted against what began as a legitimate journalistic impulse — to discover why administration statements were so clearly at odds with what took place. What is more, Fox failed to uncover anything startling to persuade other news organizations to follow their lead.
But suspicion of Fox’s motives is not the whole story. Romney has failed to convince voters that the Benghazi killings reflect badly on the president. At first he jumped the gun, wrongly accusing the U.S. embassy in Cairo of blaming the Benghazi attack on the anti-Muslim video when their statement attempting to ameliorate anger at the video was issued six hours before the lethal attack. Having been accused of making the deaths of Americans in the line of duty a partisan issue, Romney was inhibited from returning to the subject until the second debate. His inadequate grasp of the facts then led him to first accuse the president of misleading America, then recoil when it was plain he was not familiar with the president’s use of the term “act of terror” in his Rose Garden statement on Sept. 12. Obama’s invitation to “Please proceed, Governor” should have tipped off Romney that his intended coup de grace would soon become a coup de folie.
What the campaign to paint Obama as a dove has ignored is that when it comes to countering terrorism, particularly from Islamists, the president is a hawk. According to John Rizzo, CIA general counsel during the George W. Bush years, “His people made it clear that in the terrorism arena, he was going to be as tough, if not tougher, than the Bush people. … He and his people reviewed all existing ongoing CIA covert operations, and with the exception of aggressive interrogations, endorsed all of them, and doubled down on a number of them.” Peter Baker of the New York Times points out that thanks to drone strikes, Obama is “the first Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill list. … It’s very disappointing to civil liberties supporters.” What is unforgivable, perhaps, to neo-con chicken hawks is that Obama succeeded where they failed by summarily executing Osama bin Laden.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics has just been published in paperback by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: A U.S. flag is seen at the U.S. consulate, which was attacked and set on fire by gunmen yesterday, in Benghazi September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori