‘Where’s the scandal?” Bill Maher shouted, and if you want the voice of the incoherent and self-satisfied progressive id, you could do worse than to take the temperature of Bill Maher. The scandal, if you don’t know, is the White House’s maliciously misleading the American public about four dead Americans killed by preventable al-Qaeda attacks on the anniversary of 9/11 in order to serve its own narrow political purposes. The scandal itself is not very difficult to understand, unless you have a personal commitment to not understanding it. Such commitments frequently are rooted in partisanship and ideology, but in the case of our supine media and Democrats occupying the commanding heights of culture, it may be simple shame. They were intentionally misled by an administration that holds their intelligence in light esteem even as it takes for granted their support.
The odd thing is that Benghazi did not have to be a scandal. We may be used to, if not exactly resigned to, politicians who distort the facts or fabricate outright lies when it seems politically necessary to do so; nobody really expected Bill Clinton, a man constitutionally incapable of honestly answering a question about what he wants for lunch, to simply confess to what he was up to with the White House intern pool. What’s unusual in this case is the unnecessary dishonesty, as though the Obama administration simply reflexively recoiled from the truth.
How bad would it have been to own up to what happened in Benghazi and Cairo? After the worldwide exertions of the Bush years, with their attendant expenditures and terrible loss of life, a great many Americans not only were and are weary of being perpetually waist-deep in the snake-pit that is the Middle East but also are genuinely confused about what our role in the world should be going forward. The death of Osama bin Laden combined with the drawing down of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan might have provided an opportunity to pause and reflect, and Barack Obama was elected to the presidency partly in the naïve hope that his elevation to that office might provide a respite, a period of relative quiet. If President Obama ever intended such a thing, he has been successful to only a very modest degree: The war abroad has been expanded to include the assassination of American citizens, while the omnipresence of the surveillance state at home has been revealed as being even more complete than most of us had feared.
But there has been, to some extent, a return to normalcy: The Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square plot, and even the Boston Marathon attack may have commanded the nation’s attention for a few days or weeks, but we have begun to receive those attacks as something more like dramatic crime stories than episodes in a global crisis, something more akin to a school shooting than to a war. Without going so far as to argue that the American people are correct to have adopted the resigned, fatigued attitude they currently exhibit, it is to some extent understandable that they have done so.
There are various true-believer camps when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, and you can read examples of their sundry certainties in any journal of current affairs. Americans as a whole seem far less certain of anything: Gallup polls suggest that Americans have retreated from their belief that Iran is our most significant enemy on the world stage and have elevated China and North Korea, respectively, to the first and second places on the list; they believe that President Obama does not command respect in the world and they are deeply dissatisfied with our position in global affairs; they are watching events in Ukraine with great interest, view Russia with hostility, and believe that we are on the precipice of another cold war — but do not seem to have developed any more of a concrete idea of what to do about that than the White House has. The long shadow of China, at the moment mainly an economic rather than military competitor, reinforces the fact that Americans’ most acute concerns at the moment have little or nothing to do with the news from abroad; they are more worried about jobs, the economy, and bad government. Americans probably were not going to crucify President Obama in 2012 for failing to do the job when they are not entirely sure what the job is or how they want it done. When the American public is broadly united behind a foreign-policy goal and blessed with competent leadership, this is a country that can do big things quickly, e.g. Operation Desert Storm. But no such consensus prevailed, or prevails, vis-à-vis Egypt or Libya, or even on the issue of hunting down jihadists via unmanned aircraft in jurisdictions far from those in which we have been conducting formal military operations.