The Obama administration sent Susan Rice out to lie when she said that the Benghazi attack was a “spontaneous” (with RPGs!) response to a YouTube clip. I just don’t think that foreign Muslims were the intended audience for the lie. The Obama administration could have groveled and apologized as much as they wanted about the unfortunate fact that Americans are allowed mock religions. They could have thrown the poor sap who made the video into a dungeon for spitting on the sidewalk. They never had to bring Benghazi into it. How does it calm down Muslims who are upset about the YouTube clip to link them to a terrorist attack that they had nothing to do with? Blaming the Benghazi attack on the YouTube clip was about domestic American politics.
As a political matter, Benghazi presented several potential problems for the Obama administration. The administration had failed to improve security at the consulate despite requests, failed to anticipate an Al-Qaeda attack on September 11, and failed to mount a prompt rescue mission. These could all be explained by a combination of bureaucratic sloth, intelligence failure and possibly reasonable caution. That’s bad, but no party has a monopoly on error.
But an honest accounting that the Benghazi attack was carried out by an Al-Qaeda affiliate would also have opened the Obama administration to plausible (one can argue whether fair) charges that they were negligent, incompetent, and cowardly in this case. It would also have potentially undermined the “Bin Laden’s dead” narrative. Well, Al-Qaeda is alive, our ambassador is dead, and you don’t know what you are doing. The story about the YouTube clip turned it from a successful terrorist operation (to which the administration responded slowly) to a “spontaneous” and unforeseeable response to an unforeseeable event. The YouTube clip was like an earthquake or something and the ambassador was killed as a result. You can’t blame the president for an earthquake can you?
Now I think that when it comes to Benghazi, both the fears of Democrats and the hopes of Republicans were equally misplaced. The American public has a high tolerance level for foreign policy error. Clinton had his disaster in Somalia where over a dozen American personnel were killed. Over two hundred American service personnel were killed in the Beirut bombing under Reagan. Both won comfortable reelections. George W. Bush pursued the wrong policy in Iraq for two years before the public turned on him. The Benghazi attack was much closer to the election, but what minds were going to be changed by the fact of the attack itself? It wasn’t like the median voter was going to forget that they disliked Bush’s handling of Iraq, or that they would have concluded, from this one attack by an Al-Qaeda affiliate, that Obama’s whole approach to terrorism was a failure. It wasn’t like Mitt Romney was offering a popular set of alternative policies. The public’s perception of Obama’s handling on foreign policy was not based on the idea that he was perfect, just that he was better than the guy who came before. If the Obama administration had been honest and explained how they would do better in the future, they would have taken some lumps for a few days from their opponents, and the story would have moved on.
But I’m not writing this in the heat of a campaign. Lying about Benghazi must have seemed like an easy way out of a political jam. They should be called on their lie, but I don’t know how much damage this does to Obama in the long-run.