- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is coeditor of Shadow Government.
Wading through all of the Benghazi hearing revelations prompted me to review my own blog posts on the subject. If I caught them all, my progression runs something like this:
1. Initially, I was inclined to give Team Obama a passing grade for its tactical response, but to ding it for the larger strategic failure of understanding the roots of the problem in the Middle East. Also, I dinged Obama partisans for viewing the crisis narrowly through the lens of the electoral campaign and trying to shout down critics from Mitt Romney’s camp rather than address the substance of their charges.
2. Next, I credited Team Obama with handling the ceremonial role well — better than the Romney camp did — but noted that new revelations pointed to problems with the Obama administration’s preparation for and response to the crisis.
3. Next, I dinged the media for waiting so long before they started asking tough questions about Benghazi, but noted that once they started, Barack Obama’s administration seemed unable to provide convincing answers. Nevertheless, I still defended the administration from Republicans who were pushing the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme. I said it was far more likely that rather than outright lying, what Team Obama was doing was mere partisan political spin control. It was all designed to distract public attention from an embarrassing fiasco, but to do so without willful deception.
4. Next, I pointed out that the Obama campaign in the televised foreign-policy debate tried to pretend that it had always been candid about the Benghazi terrorist attacks when, of course, it had not and had, in fact, followed exactly the spin script I had forecast.
5. Finally, I noted that the official State Department report tried to fix blame for Benghazi on Congress and despite presenting evidence for the myriad ways that Obama’s regional strategy had itself contributed to disaster, studiously avoided reaching that obvious conclusion. The report read a bit like a whitewash designed to protect higher-ups.
Since then, the Benghazi revelations have suggested that I might have been too kind to the administration. There are four key questions, and on all of them, the evidence keeps piling up in a more negative direction:
1. Did failures of strategy and comprehension of the regional challenges contribute to the Benghazi disaster (in other words, was it just bad luck, or were there deeper failures involved)? From the beginning, this was a valid concern, and it is even more valid today. No new revelations have exonerated the administration on this crucial question.
2. Did failures of tactics and response contribute to the Benghazi disaster? Initially, it looked like those concerns were at best Monday morning quarterbacking and at worst partisan sniping, but the recent testimony shows that at least some responsible officials were begging for a better response in real time. The best that Obama defenders can say now is that even if these measures had been tried, they wouldn’t have worked. Perhaps, but they were not even tried.
3. Was the initial public messaging up through Ambassador Susan Rice’s infamous talking points tolerable spin and understandable fog-of-war confusion in the face of conflicting reports, or something much worse? Initially, I thought the administration earned the benefit of the doubt. Now, especially based on this bombshell story, the evidence points pretty convincingly to the conclusion that there was willful misleading going on in the earliest days.
4. Regardless of how it handled things under the pressure of a hard-fought reelection campaign, has the administration come clean since the election ended? Given how much of the recent testimony was missing in the State Department’s official report, it is hard to credit the administration with candor even at this late date.
In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with a single element where the Obama case looks stronger today than it did before.
For months, my friends in the Romney campaign thought that Benghazi was a genuine scandal, and my friends on Team Obama have insisted that there is nothing to it (though one friend did concede that there was probably more to Benghazi than there ever was to the faux scandal over Valerie Plame). Throughout I have argued a middle-ground position of faint praise and faint damns. However, the evidence keeps mounting that the Romney folks may have been closer to the truth all along.
Here is one more piece of evidence: Obama defenders seem to have stopped trying to argue substance and instead are emphasizing how little the public cares about it and how quickly it will all be forgotten by the time that Hillary Clinton runs for president. They may be right about both of those points, but that is tantamount to pleading nolo contendere on the key charges. If the facts were with them, I think they would be mounting a more substantive defense.