Yesterday morning, I spoke to Senator Lindsey Graham about the Obama administration’s responsibility for — and reaction to — September’s embassy attacks. I asked him who was to blame.
“Suppose that Obama wins a second term. There’s been some talk of Susan Rice as a potential secretary of state. How would you feel about that?” I asked. “That would be virtually impossible,” Graham told me. “I tend to defer to presidential choice, but there are some lines that I will not cross. She’s either incompetent or untrustworthy — she’s one of the two. [Though] ultimately, I blame the president.”
Which one of the two explains why the administration’s account was so at odds with the growing evidence? I asked. Was it a deliberate political ploy — a cover-up, perhaps — or the inevitable symptom of the worldview held by the president and his team? The problem with Benghazi, Graham replied, “is that it doesn’t fit Obama’s narrative. He wishes to convey the idea that his administration has diminished al-Qaeda and ended the wars,” and that the “danger is now limited.” To listen to him is to get “the impression that al-Qaeda has been fatally weakened and the ball game is nearly over.” The problem, he continued, is that “bin Laden’s death has not changed anything strategically. We seem to think we are in the last two minutes of the game, but the enemy is getting ready for the second quarter.”
But why does he do that? I pushed. “He has a tendency to blame everybody for problems on his watch,” Graham told me. “He’s still blaming Bush.” Moreover, “Obama’s foreign policy flows from his idea that we can’t be exceptional. He doesn’t buy the idea that America is exceptional and should lead. He thinks that leading in a firm way makes him Bush — and he’s hellbent on not being Bush. His worldview is a problem.” How much of a problem? “Well, doing nothing” and a lack of American leadership “has caught up with him. They have left the militias in Libya unaddressed. I wrote an op-ed on this.”
I looked the op-ed up. In it, Senator Graham argued:
We can also help Libya lay the foundation for sustainable security. This requires safeguarding the immense stockpiles of weapons and dangerous materials that exist across the country. It also requires bringing Libya’s many militias under the TNC’s civilian authority, and working toward their demobilization, disarmament and reintegration into Libyan society. We and our allies should encourage this peaceful process as much as we can, and oppose external efforts to pick winners who would advance factional or ideological interests through force.
Many Libyans recognize that they need a new civilian-led national army and police force. The TNC has asked the U.S., perhaps together with our Arab partners, to help train this new security force. American involvement in a small training mission could help Libya build a professional security force that contributes to national unity and forms the basis of our future security cooperation. Here, too, the TNC offered to reimburse the costs of our efforts.
“From the time I wrote that, to September 11 of this year, they did nothing,” he told me. “So they were in a panic trying to change the news cycle, trying to blame the film as if nobody could have seen this coming. A film means less blame than a planned terrorist attack, so they rushed out to say that it was spontaneous, which was a conscious effort to protect the narrative” and to protect the president. The reality is, the senator continued, that “they have been overwhelmed by the Arab Spring.”
American exceptionalism and a belief in the virtues of the United States are a theme Graham returns to frequently. “Have you seen Why We Fight?” he asked me. I admitted that I hadn’t. “It’s a film made in the Second World War to show how terrible the Nazis were. This 14-year-old girl in Pakistan . . . we can’t live on the same planet as the Taliban, who want to kill her because she wants an education. But we can share the planet with her. A big problem with Obama is that he’s done nothing to explain why we’re fighting.”
And what of a potential President Romney? “I hope he’d learn from the mistakes of Bush and Obama.” What were Bush’s mistakes? “He wasn’t sensitive enough. He thought that removing Saddam was mission accomplished, just as Obama thinks that killing bin Laden is the end of it. It’s not. I hope a future president remembers that.”