In the wake of what is now considered a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, a strike that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on the fateful day of September 11, the Republicans smell blood in the water. Political blood.
In last Thursday's debate with Vice President Joe Biden, Congressman Paul Ryan charged the Obama administration with misrepresenting the attack as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islamic video and leaving the consulate vulnerable by rejecting its requests for increased security. All this, Ryan claimed, shows that the president's foreign policy is "chaotic," making the U.S. "less safe."
In response to Ryan's charge, Biden led off by claiming that the Congressman once voted to cut 300 million dollars from the budget for embassy security. Unfortunately, that charge stretches a rather complicated set of facts, as Peter Grier has recently shown. The real hypocrisy lies elsewhere, and it's far more flagrant than even Biden sought to imply -- as I will explain further on.
But first let's examine the charges, starting with the one about lax security. On Wednesday, October 10, the day before the debate, Eric Nordstrom -- the former regional security officer in Libya -- told a Congressional hearing that the State Department had blocked his request for reinforcements. But according to ABC, Nordstrom "said that he had sought mainly to prevent any reduction on staff, rather than have a big increase." Furthermore, Charlene Lamb, deputy secretary of state for diplomatic security, told the hearing that "we had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11."
If that statement (which the White House itself has repudiated) looks laughably blinkered in hindsight, we must face a basic fact about diplomatic life in Libya right now. Contrary to what Paul Ryan implied at the debate, Benghazi is not another Paris any more than Libya is another France or a consulate is another embassy, which is what we have in Paris. Even if the State Department could have sent a marine detachment to Benghazi, as Ryan seems to think, it could not have guaranteed the safety of the consulate in a city dominated by militias barely under the control of a government now struggling to be born. As we must surely know from what happened in Tehran 33 years ago, no embassy can be fully secure without the protection of the host government.
How much protection can we count on from Libya? Let's get into into its political weeds. At the time of the September 11 attack, even as our two major parties were duking it out for the White House, Libya's new lawmakers in Tripoli were caught up in voting for its first democratically elected prime minister, with the choices narrowed to Mustafa Abushgar and Mahmoud Jibril, formerly the interim prime minister. On September 12, Abushgar won by a hair, but he has since been knocked out by a vote of no confidence, which means that Libya still needs a prime minister.
Now here's a dirty little secret just disclosed by Michael Birnbaum. At a meeting held with our diplomats in Benghazi just a few days before the September 11 attack, at least two leaders of the Benghazi militias accused the U.S. of backing Mahmoud Jibril in the election. Because they consider Jibril a secularist, the leaders told our diplomats that they could not guarantee security in Benghazi if he were elected. That's what we're up against in Libya. Is this the kind of problem that is best solved by weapons and more American boots on the ground, or by the kind of patient, courageous negotiation that distinguished the career of Ambassador Stevens?
Whatever the effectiveness of diplomacy, the only alternative is deeper military involvement in Libya: yet another war, which is what we have so far avoided waging there. Obama's management of our part in the overthrow of Gaddafi was anything but "chaotic"; it was a triumph of foreign policy. Unlike President Bush with Iraq, Obama helped Libya change its regime without putting a single pair of American boots on the ground. If we have learned nothing else from our adventures in war during the past decade, we should surely know by now that it is far, far better to risk diplomacy -- no matter how uncertain -- than to launch another war.
One more thing about the management of consulate security. Can anyone recall what steps were taken to increase security at American airports in August of 2001, when the Bush administration was unequivocally told that Bin Laden was "determined to strike within the United States"? That's just one thing that makes the Republican line on Benghazi so hypocritical.
Now consider what the White House said about about the Benghazi attack. By initially presenting the attack as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islamic video, Biden claims that the administration was reporting "exactly what [they] were told" by intelligence officials at the time, that further intelligence has led them to a different conclusion, and that they "will get to the bottom of it, and... wherever the facts lead us, we will make clear to the American public, because whatever mistakes were made will not be made again."
Is Biden wholly credible here? Remembering how intelligence was spun in the years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, we might question Biden's claim that the White House reported "exactly" what intelligence officials told it. But what's the bone of contention here? It took the White House about one week to get the Benghazi story straight, or about as straight as anyone could in a week. (See Birnbaum's story again on how hard it is to find the truth in Benghazi.) How long, then, did it take the Bush administration to straighten out its story on Iraq, to admit that there were never any weapons of mass destruction there when we invaded that country and thus launched a war that killed 4,486 American soldiers, plus over 162,00 Iraqis (including well over 100,000 civilians), and will end up costing us well over a trillion dollars? You know the answer all too well.
And in light of that answer, the Republican spin on the Benghazi attack has just set a new record for hypocrisy.