Commentary on Virginia 5th Congressional District, Congressman Robert Hurt’s recent statements on Benghazi.
Dear Congressman Hurt,
At the highest level, Republicans believe there are three elements to the Benghazi scandal:
That the White House and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lied about the true reason for the attack in order to guarantee his re-election and protect her 2016 campaign.
That President Obama and Clinton are personally responsible for the deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi because they were either (a) asleep at the switch or (b) unwilling to take any action that they feared would destabilize the U.S. relationship with the Libyan government.
That subsequent to the attacks the White House and Clinton ordered a massive coverup to conceal their actions related to the first and second elements of the conspiracy.
There are some facts (including ones embarrassing to the White House) that are consistent with the GOP view of Benghazi, but as with all conspiracy theories, Republicans have used those facts to convince themselves of something that just isn’t true. Here’s why they are wrong.
1. Obama didn’t steal the 2012 election by lying about Benghazi (and neither did Hillary steal the 2016 race)
The starting point for the conspiracy theory is the fact that the White House initially blamed the attack on the spread of protests in Cairo that had been sparked by an anti-Muslim video uploaded to YouTube by an American. That turned out not to be the case, something that the White House now acknowledges. The White House also used this belief to deflect GOP criticism of its Middle East foreign policy. But neither of those facts are sufficient to support the conclusion that the White House covered up the true reason for the attack in order to steal the election from Mitt Romney’s grasp.
Part of the reason why we know this is true is that what the White House said about Benghazi and the protests at embassies throughout the Middle East was consistent with what the CIA had told them. Yes, it ultimately was wrong to link the Benghazi attack directly to the Cairo protests, but it is what they believed.
In my opinion, however, there’s a bigger reason why the GOP’s belief is absurd: It would have been literally insane for the White House to think it could steal the 2012 election by lying about Benghazi being a result of a protest inspired by a video. First of all, Benghazi wasn’t going to be an election-turning event no matter what. I’m not taking away from the horror of what happened, but there just isn’t any scenario under a significant number of Americans would have made it a deciding factor in their vote.
Moreover, Mitt Romney, by appearing too eager to exploit the issue for political gain, hurt himself badly in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Nonetheless, in the second debate, he tried to exploit the issue again, only to be smacked in the face by reality in Obama’s famous “Please proceed, governor” moment. At this point, what we remember is mainly that Romney interrupted President Obama, who wisely decided to let Romney step right into a trap of his own making.
But let’s remember what the substance of their exchange was: Romney accused President Obama of minimizing the attack in Benghazi by refusing to call it an act of terrorism, which is essentially the heart of the GOP’s conspiracy theory. President Obama’s response—backed up by Candy Crowley—was that he had in fact called it an act of terrorism. Even if you’re a conservative who thinks Romney got robbed by Crowley, you have to concede that President Obama’s position in that debate was that he believed the Benghazi attack was a terrorist action. He didn’t say anything about a video or a protest.
What I’m trying to say here is that if the White House had a plot to steal the election by writing off Benghazi as the consequence of a YouTube video and protests in Cairo, they forgot to tell the president. Because in that debate, broadcast live on every major television channel, the president’s clear and unambiguous position was that it was an act of terrorism. And there’s a reason Mitt Romney didn’t bring the issue up again: It’s because he knew he had nothing to gain by continuing to harp on it. Ironically, the only way Romney could have capitalized on the issue is if President Obama had continued pushing the flawed talking points. The fact that he didn’t is prima facie evidence of the absurdity of the GOP claim.
2. Neither President Obama nor Hillary Clinton ordered the military to stand down from any rescue mission of any sort.
The White House, the State Department and other observers have all concluded that the security in Benghazi was insufficient. In fact, that’s more or less obvious based on what happened: If security measures were sufficient, four deaths would have been avoided. As President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their staffs have repeatedly said, they share responsibility for the security posture there. But it’s also true that Republicans, who blocked funding requests for security at diplomatic posts, should also take responsibility.
Regardless of whether Republicans concede they were part of the security equation, it’s an enormous leap to go from the idea that security was inadequate at Benghazi to the belief that the president or Clinton willfully left Americans in harm’s way at the height of the attack because they were either asleep at the switch or more interested in helping Libyans save face than in saving American lives. In the words of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, who is a Republican and is harshly critical of the Benghazi security posture before the attack:
The Armed Services Committee has interviewed more than a dozen witnesses in the operational chain of command that night, yielding thousands of pages of transcripts, e-mails, and other documents. We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources DoD had available to respond.
It’s horrible what happened in Benghazi, and it’s crushing to contemplate the fact that on the night of the attack, there was no obvious course of action that could have changed the outcome, but those are the facts. To believe that Obama or Clinton were personally complicit in the deaths that occurred in Benghazi is to believe in an alternate reality.
3. There is no coverup of a coverup, because there was no coverup.
We all know the phrase “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup,” but Republicans have forgotten that for there to be a coverup, there needs to be something to cover up. And the simple fact is that neither President Obama nor Hillary Clinton committed a crime of any sort. The only criminals are the terrorists who attacked us in Benghazi.
That’s not to say the president or Clinton don’t share responsibility for the fact that the consulate didn’t have better security. They do—as they’ve both acknowledged. If Republicans want to make that a partisan issue, they’re welcome to try, but aside from the fact that they also share in the blame due to their funding cuts, I rather suspect that foreign policy misadventures is not a subject that they want to address in a reality-based way given what they forced on the nation with Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the notion that there the Commander in Chief or Secretary of State committed a crime when Benghazi was attacked, and subsequently engaged in a coverup of that crime is, to put it bluntly, insane.