Learning Nothing From Libya By Jeffrey Goldberg

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DeM Banter: Hummm… things you did not hear at the debate last night… and good points, not sure the argument over reading the transcript, moderator inputs/corrections, and both candidates bowing their chest out really solves or identifies the real issues at play here…

Philadelphia Inquirer
October 17, 2012
Pg. 22

Many stupid things have been said by people who should have known better in the month since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The raid – in which heavily armed men with suspected links to al-Qaeda killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans – is being portrayed by some Republicans as approaching the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in importance, and by some Democrats as an unfortunate little mishap that says absolutely nothing about President Obama’s competence and credibility, or about the state of the war on al-Qaeda.

The attack could have been used to teach various useful lessons about al-Qaeda’s resilience, human fallibility, and the limits of security and intelligence. Instead, in this pathologically politicized climate, our national leadership is most interested in identifying scapegoats to fire and points to score.

Two of the most foolish statements about the attack have come from the Obama campaign’s deputy manager, Stephanie Cutter, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), who led a House committee hearing on it last week.

First up, Cutter, who said on CNN that “the entire reason that this has become the political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It’s a big part of their stump speech, and it’s reckless and irresponsible.” An ambassador is killed, and Cutter thinks the “entire reason” it has become a political issue is Romney?

It is true that early in the crisis, Romney intervened prematurely and inappropriately. But members of the Obama administration have certainly opened themselves up to criticism, first by asserting that the attack on the consulate grew from a spontaneous demonstration against an offensive YouTube video, and then by continuing to make this assertion long after it had ceased to be credible.

A more subtle criticism not yet fully grasped by the Romney campaign is that the administration was predisposed to believe that an al-Qaeda-affiliated group couldn’t have been behind the attack because the administration had already, according to its public-relations team, vanquished al-Qaeda. Obama has set al-Qaeda back substantially – doing more to dismantle its upper ranks than George W. Bush did – but administration partisans would have you think it’s been reduced to three guys in a cave with a dial-up connection. It hasn’t been.

Republicans, contra Cutter, have the right and the responsibility to ask what went wrong in Benghazi, especially because Democrats seem so uninterested. What Republicans shouldn’t do is make statements like Issa’s on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday. He argued that if security officials had repeatedly requested reinforcements for U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya, “and that’s not being heard, then it isn’t just Ambassador Stevens who is now dead – it’s everybody who works throughout the Middle East is at risk.”

Eleven years after 9/11, and 12 years after the fatal raid on the USS Cole in Yemen, Issa has just realized that assignments to the Middle East might pose risks for American personnel! In his desire to cast the administration as incompetent, Issa does an enormous disservice to diplomacy and engagement. American embassies are already fortresses; Issa would dig a moat around them. After a point, there’s simply no reason to dispatch diplomats to hostile capitals if they can’t engage with actual citizens.

The answer isn’t to swaddle our overseas personnel in ever more elaborate layers of security. The answer is better intelligence and a willingness to talk straight about risk.

Our leaders – of both parties – have systematically infantilized Americans with the notion that perfect security is attainable. This is one reason the White House reacts so defensively to any intimation that its conduct of the war on al-Qaeda is less than perfect. It’s one reason Republicans cynically argue that the administration is incompetent in its prosecution of the war, and in its mission to keep U.S. personnel alive.

So long as both parties react so small-mindedly and opportunistically to terrorist threats, we won’t be able to have a rational, adult conversation about the best ways to wage this war.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.

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