Shadow Government

What Do the Latest White House Emails Reveal About the Benghazi Scandal?

The long-delayed release of additional White House emails "reveal" that the White House spin machine was scrambling mightily to squeeze the inconvenient fact of the terrorist attack in Benghazi into the campaign narrative of President Barack Obama as the man who killed Osama bin Laden and ended the war on terror. "Reveal" is in scare ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The long-delayed release of additional White House emails "reveal" that the White House spin machine was scrambling mightily to squeeze the inconvenient fact of the terrorist attack in Benghazi into the campaign narrative of President Barack Obama as the man who killed Osama bin Laden and ended the war on terror. "Reveal" is in scare quotes, because that was obvious to outside observers from the very start.

It may be hard to remember now, but the dominant controversy in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks concerned not the White House’s misleading message but rather the Romney campaign’s clumsy and ill-timed critique. Even in the midst of that discussion, however, it was possible to see that the White House might not be fully leveling with the American public.  Here is what I wrote the day before Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes sent his now infamous email:

The Obama campaign, which includes surrogates and supporters in the media/blogosphere, has focused almost entirely on a political response, launching a blistering and relentlessly partisan attack on Governor Romney for his early comments on the crisis. I recognize that in the midst of a campaign, particularly in a week devoted to attacking Romney on national security grounds, one should expect a partisan response, but even so the vehemence of the anti-Romney attacks is quite striking. Now Obama supporters would claim that they are merely responding to Romney’s own critique — and they could point to second-guessing by Republicans as proof that Romney crossed a line — but the Obama campaign’s response is far too unhinged and opportunistic and orchestrated to be blamed entirely on Romney.

Then there is the strategic level, which is asking the bigger questions of whether the Obama administration’s tactical reflex response to the crisis indicated a deeper strategic failure to understand the roots of the problem, whether Obama’s approach in the region is working, whether more active American leadership might have positioned us better, whether the Obama administration was too quick to declare Mission Accomplished in Libya and, in so doing, took its eye off the ball there, and so on. Romney’s response to Libya has been pointed in the direction of raising the discussion to this strategic level. That is ultimately where the debate needs to go and it is certainly a legitimate debate to have.

Why the relentless partisan response to Romney? Peter Baker and Ashley Parker suggest a possible answer in their New York Times story on the partisan response:

The debate over his comments drew attention from questions about how Mr. Obama had managed the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the aftermath of the war in Libya and the broader battle against Islamic extremists.

I followed that up a few days later with another post, written after then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice delivered the misleading talking points that are at issue with the recent revelations from White House emails. As I said then, the Romney campaign deserved criticism for the clumsy way they responded to the attacks, and they were receiving plenty; but the Obama White House deserved criticism, too, and was not getting much from the supposed non-partisan media.

Finally, a few weeks later, I wrote a look-back piece that put the whole thing in perspective. I said that the Republicans were probably over-reaching by alleging a vast conspiracy of lies and cover-ups. But it was also obvious that the Obama White House had been playing politics on Benghazi, and would continue to do so as long as they got away with it. I think the following holds up rather well, in light of what we have learned since then:

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 five-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 three and four 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 five-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."

The recently revealed Rhodes email was part of the Obama campaign’s larger effort to insulate Obama from a larger strategic critique of his handling of the Middle East and the fight against militant islamist terrorist networks. If the Benghazi attacks were merely the spontaneous popular outrage to an offensive video, then they hardly could be blamed on the president. If they were something more, then the administration would have to answer awkward questions about the ways that their approach was failing.

Now, a year and a half later, the failures of Obama’s regional approach are impossible to ignore.  But in the heat of the presidential campaign, with some deft spin and a pliant media, they could be discounted. There was just enough uncertainty and ambiguity in the immediate intelligence reporting to allow for a best-case interpretation. So to win a few more days of the 24-hour news cycle, the White House crafted some talking points that might deflect the critics and keep the media focused on the faux-scandal of the Romney campaign issuing its critique while the attacks were still underway.

I see no evidence of a conspiracy larger than that. It may be a bit unseemly, but it is also pretty much the core mission of the White House’s communications and political shops during a reelection campaign: Put the best possible spin on world events so as to make it seem like they confirm the wisdom of reelecting President Obama. It was no worse than what Romney’s team was trying to do: Show how world events confirmed the wisdom of electing Governor Romney.  But it was no better either — or rather, it may have been more tactically successful, but it was no more honorable or principled. If you want to be angry at anyone, be angry at credulous reporting of White House spin, not at White House spinners.

Yes, the Obama administration has politicized national security debates to an extraordinary degree, but rather than focusing on the spin, the country would be better served to focus on the larger strategic questions. 

And yes, I also said that before Rhodes sent his email:

Diverting attention away from the question "what do events in the Middle East tell us about our strategic approach to the region" and toward "what does the timing of Romney’s statement tell us about the horse race" may be an effective way to get reelected, but I don’t think it is an effective way to advance America’s foreign policy interests in the region.

That, in my view, is the real scandal.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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