End the Benghazi Blame Game

A New York Times report shows Congress missed the mark when investigating the Benghazi attacks.

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After 9/11, many Americans, unused to the sort of terrorist and random attacks suffered by people in so many other countries, asked a genuine but somewhat naïve question: "Why do they hate us?"

Congress might ask itself the same question now, as its members continue to feud over labels involving terrorism and security instead of figuring out how to keep us all as safe as we can be, maintaining our American principles without being provocative for its own sake. Unfortunately, that lesson from 9/11 has not been learned.

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, was a terrible tragedy. Four Americans, including career U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed. There are important questions to be asked about how and why it happened, and how it might have been derailed or better defended. Instead, the deaths have been used by the right wing to create an unsupported (at best) conspiracy theory more focused on damaging the political fortunes of President Obama and his administration than on saving lives moving forward.

[ 2013: The Year in Cartoons]

Mitt Romney (and some of the media's) obsession with whether Obama had termed the assault a "terrorist" attack was the start of the nonsense. First of all, Obama did so, at a news conference in the days after the attack, and secondly, why does it matter? Are the four Americans more or less dead, more or less honored by their brave service to their country, if the attack were called "terrorist?"

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was grilled relentlessly over the matter by congressional committees – and that was correct, or would have been, had the panels focused on actual security breaches, as opposed to mixed messages about what had provoked the attack. Officials – notably, relying on intelligence collected by other U.S. officials on the ground – had thought the attack to be motivated by an anti-Muslim video. That idea was later shot down as other information surfaced showing the attack was planned and not spontaneous. The reality is that both things could be true, particularly in such a volatile situation. Anyone who has been in a combat zone or indeed, any hotspot, knows how a crowd can quickly turn into a mob, even if the original instigators came in with a plan.

Now, The New York Times has published a series reported by the stellar David Kirkpatrick saying that it was local militias, not al-Qaida, who were responsible for the attack. The response from Republicans (and, more mildly, a Democrat) on the Hill was to slam Kirkpatrick's months-long investigation as inaccurate. Michigan GOP Rep. Mike Rogers said Kirkpatrick relied on the wrong sources (as opposed to those of Rogers?) and House oversight chief Darrell Issa used the newspaper report to criticize the Obama administration again on how it handled the matter.

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on Benghazi.]

What is the point of this discourse? Does it even matter whether al-Qaida was involved? It may matter if such a distinction was meant to diminish the killing of Osama bin Laden as a campaign selling point, but it doesn't matter that much in figuring out how to proceed from here. There are a lot of extremist groups out there, and many of them likely look to al-Qaida as a heroic group. That's not the same thing as saying al-Qaida orchestrated the attack. As Kirkpatrick rightly explained on NBC's "Meet the Press":

There's just no chance that this was an al Qaida attack if, by al Qaida, you mean the organization founded by Osama bin Laden. If you're using the term al Qaida to describe even a local group of Islamist militants who may dislike democracy or have a grudge against the United States, if you're going to call anybody like that al Qaida, then okay.

The only real question to be asked here is whether the U.S. had advance knowledge of poor security at the consulate and whether something could have been done to improve it. The answer is yes, on both counts. Kirkpatrick's reporting indicates the administration trusted the wrong people in Libya, and did not take the right security precautions, And Congress, led in the House by proudly ruthless budget-cutters, needs to ask itself whether it was wise to trim security budgets at U.S. operations abroad.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

There's a reason Congress's approval rating is at an historic low. And it's not simply because of an unpopular (for now) health care law or a disastrous government shutdown. It's the dysfunctional dynamics behind those two things, as well as those behind the Benghazi debate. Congress is far too focused on knocking down the other political team than it is on paying attention to keeping Americans safe, healthy and able to count on government services they pay for. That, lawmakers, is why they hate you.