Don’t blame Obama for playing politics on Benghazi, blame the press for letting him get away with it for so long

Don’t blame Obama for playing politics on Benghazi, blame the press for letting him get away with it for so long

After giving the Obama team a pass for the first couple weeks on the likely al Qaeda 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi, the media is finally asking tough questions. And what they are finding raises troubling questions about what the Obama administration did before, during, and after the al Qaeda anniversary attacks.

Republicans risk over-reacting to this evolving storyline, particularly with the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme that is rising in certain sectors of the pundit world.

We may find evidence that Obama or his spokespeople lied — that is, said things that they knew at the time were not true —  but I haven’t seen convincing evidence of that yet.  And, frankly, I would be surprised if that were the case. Most often, what partisans call "lies" are actually something far less sinister: inferential errors and wishful thinking. Since Democrats have peddled for years their own Big Myth about the Bush Administration "lying" about Iraqi WMD, the desire to pin that same tale/tail on the donkey is understandable. But Republicans should hold themselves to the higher standard they wish Democrats would meet rather than sink down to the level of their partisan attackers.

Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:

  1. Initial reports were confusing (initial reports are always confusing) and left open myriad possibilities, ranging from the fairly benign (Youtube-inspired hooligans got out of control) to the most malignant (Zawahiri exacted his revenge).
  2. Romney’s initial messaging on the 9/11 anniversary attacks went over poorly and the media outrage, partly real and partly manufactured, eclipsed coverage of the underlying attacks. 
  3. The Obama team did everything they could to keep the media focus on Romney’s stumbles. Partly this involved tut-tutting about what Romney said, but mostly this required not feeding an alternate storyline that indicated the attacks might have been linked to a resurgent Al Qaeda. They could accomplish the latter simply by repeating what was known — there was a lot of Youtube-inspired hooliganism — and keeping quiet about anything that might simply be suspected, even as those suspicions grow stronger and stronger.
  4. The Obama team also responded in typical campaign mode: They protected the candidate and did not say anything that would raise doubts about Obama’s foreign policy and national security prowess until the facts accumulated to the point where some concession was necessary. At that point, they conceded the minimum and insisted on waiting until the outcome of a (hopefully lengthy) investigation that (again hopefully) will not report out until well past election day.
  5. The Obama team was bolstered in steps 3 and 4 by one further factor: wishful thinking. As David Ignatius spells out so clearly: "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world." In the language of political science, the Obama team had a strong motivated bias that colored the way they interpreted ambiguous data. They were receptive to information that reinforced what they wanted to believe and viewed with suspicion and skepticism information that challenged this view.

Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:

Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.

Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.

Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks.

This is all very understandable, and I just don’t have much patience for the view that pretends to be genuinely shocked that the Obama team has been playing politics with national security at this stage in the campaign.

Perhaps we also shouldn’t be shocked that the media let them get away with it for so long. The political game of footsie I outline above was only viable if the media played along, which they were willing to do for a while but no longer. The media was willing to play along because they are biased, even when they do not want to be. They find it easier to understand people like themselves, Democrats, and have to work harder to understand people not like themselves, Republicans. They are as prone to reading events through pre-established filters — for instance, the filter that says Romney is gaffe-prone on national security and Obama has a strong record on terrorism — as everyone else. And they must work in the hostile environment of the White House’s "Chicago rules," which punishes reporters who challenge the administration. The better reporters overcome this, and we can see the fruits of their labors in the new scrutiny and skepticism of recent stories.

Campaigns should certainly point out and push back against biased media coverage, but campaigns should also understand that media bias is a given, rather like the Electoral College, and strategize accordingly.