Two important points need to be made about the lamentable Benghazi affair. The first is that this is no time to start reaching for the self-firing, almost untargeted impeachment six-guns. Ever since Watergate, the joys of criminalizing policy differences and putting additional heat on political opponents by unctuously installing special prosecutors and speaking with the sleazy solemnity of faux due process while stoking up public opinion for impeachment proceedings and the removal from high offices of their occupants has been more and more frequently the default posture of both parties. It is clear to all reasonable examiners of the facts now that there was only the flimsiest ground to destroy the Nixon administration, one of the most successful in the country’s history, and no reason whatever to subject President Clinton to a Senate trial over the tawdry but practically irrelevant matter of his peccadilloes and response to questions about them, which approached perjury of the mousetrap kind, but did not commit it. There was a good deal of Democratic huffing and puffing and pawing of the ground over Iran-Contra, as if, in Colonel North’s words, “the on again, off again” congressional attitude to assistance to the Nicaraguan contras had a legal weight and entitlement to inviolability greater than the most seminal provisions of the Constitution, which were on the side of the commander-in-chief. The special prosecutor in that case, Lawrence Walsh, became a raving Torquemada who even indicted the profoundly unimpeachable Caspar Weinberger. As for the original presidential impeachment, of Andrew Johnson, it was an unmitigated outrage and a scandal that it came within one vote of success.
The definition of high crimes and misdemeanors, which the Constitution requires to be proven before a federal officeholder is removed, should be clarified, and restored to its original content: gross material abuse of office, or abuse of office with intent to subvert the Constitution and fundamentally alter the nature of government. The Benghazi affair, as it seems to be emerging, doesn’t tick either of these boxes. What seems to be the case is that the government was slow to react to assist the four men who died in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi and then soft-pedaled the incident as a spontaneous mass response by the incessantly conjured and invoked “Arab street” against a private-sector American video produced by some Islamophobic kook who pilloried the prophet Mohammed. We were subjected to the imbecilic charade of Hillary Clinton going on television to reassure the world’s Muslims, who must have been completely oblivious to what she was talking about, that the great majority of Americans had nothing but respect for Islam. This charade was in furtherance of the pretense that Secretary Clinton and the entire senior echelons of the administration — including the president, the vice president, the CIA director, and Secretary of Defense Panetta — all locked hands and sang like a choir to promote: that the Benghazi murders, including that of a distinguished ambassador, were not an organized terrorist incident, but a misplaced reaction to an offense against Muslim sensibilities. Susan Rice, who had some hopes of succeeding Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, was frog-marched onto the Sunday talk shows to trot out the canard about the offensive video. It was a contemptible, self-serving fraud, and the media were complicit in allowing it to gain some currency, as in Candy Crowley’s award-winning performance as apprentice-whitewasher of the administration in the presidential debates. The administration staged a shabby and disgraceful performance, but it was not a high crime or misdemeanor, and the tongue of the next commentator who raises the spectre of impeachment on this account should be extracted with red-hot tongs.
The second takeaway from the Benghazi story, and the real burden of it, is how firmly it underscores the impotence of the Obama foreign policy. Whatever initiatives may have been taken in foreign policy, and they have been few and almost entirely unsuccessful, the Obama administration’s first concern is always the preservation of its political dignity. Any administration has this concern up to a point. But this administration has been an overachiever. Responding diffidently to an urgent request for assistance from a diplomatic mission under attack is almost certain to be inexcusable. Doing so to damp down concerns in the run-up to an election that there might be a revival of the terrorism the governing party had strenuously told the country it had largely laid to rest, symbolically, with the bullet-riddled corpse of Osama bin Laden dumped into the Indian Ocean, is cynical politics at its shabbiest and cheesiest. And it has been compounded by the pusillanimous efforts at disguise of what really happened. The fig-leaf was finally stripped off this masquerade when three disinterested career State Department officials testified that the official explanation was, in effect, an unmitigated sequence of barefaced lies.
This seems, over four years in, to be the substance of the Obama foreign policy: There is no substance. The president went to Cairo in his opening days and made a speech to the Muslim world that implied that all previous grievances of that section of the world against the United States were against policies devised by administrations led by white men with entirely Christian backgrounds, and that that condition had changed and the grievances should cease. He did not seem to grasp that national and transnational interests determine these matters, not the pigmentation or sectarian affiliations of the custodians of those interests. He signaled to Egypt’s President Mubarak that George W. Bush’s pressures on behalf of democracy were over, but when pressures arose within Egypt claiming to be democratic, he abruptly deserted Mubarak and has been appeasing the Muslim Brotherhood (which is no more democratic than Mubarak, and murdered Anwar Sadat); he also sat mute as a suet pudding while the Israeli embassy in Cairo was sacked. He signaled the Iranian theocracy that he wished a modus vivendi, while the ayatollahs suppressed the electoral will of Iran with fictitious ballot-counting, beatings, mass arrests, and gunfire; the administration “sat idly by,” as FDR would have said, and the Iranians concluded that the United States was in the hands of weaklings with and to whom they could do what they pleased. The administration scrapped the missile-defense system western and central Europe had counted on for its security, to ensure greater cooperation with the Russians; it has been rewarded with the greatest level of official insolence the Kremlin has inflicted on Washington since pre-Gorbachev days. The administration was happy enough with Qaddafi until his country boiled up under him, and then unctuously said he must go — but declined to assist in that process until the French and British took it up, and then ran out of the air-to-ground missiles needed to implement the policy. This is the pattern.
It suited the administration to pretend that terrorism and Muslim discontent had subsided, so we had the fable of the disrespectful video. When British prime minister Clement Attlee offered to help mediate an end to the Korean conflict between China and the U.S., President Truman said he would rather be thrown out militarily than negotiate a dishonorable departure. When President Kennedy was advised that he could lay the blame for the Bay of Pigs on the previous administration, he refused to try. When President Ford was told it would be damaging politically in the midterm elections if he visited former president Nixon in the hospital, he said that there was something wrong with the country if it would begrudge him a visit to a sick friend in the hospital. When President Reagan was beseeched not to visit a German war cemetery where there were some SS dead, he replied that he had given his word to the German chancellor and people that he would — and gave a speech there that said that draftees into evil organizations in which they lost their lives in the unjust cause of the Third Reich were also victims. The leaders of a great nation must frequently take positions of principle and stick to them. This administration seems to have no concept of that. It does not deserve to be impeached, but the country should be more discerning when it next has the chance to choose who will govern.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].