‘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.
The Obama administration’s blunders leading up to the events of September 11, 2012, were real, and they were catastrophic. If my colleague Andrew C. McCarthy is correct — and I believe he is — then the story is even worse than it seems at first blush: We all know that the tale of spontaneous demonstrations culminating in a riot was completely untrue in the case of Benghazi, but there is reason to believe that the events in Cairo that day were something other than what has been portrayed. Mr. McCarthy argues convincingly that the plan for Cairo probably was a hostage-taking operation in the mode of Tehran in 1979, the goal of which was to secure the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the infamous “Blind Sheikh,” who, thanks to Mr. McCarthy’s efforts during his time at the Justice Department, is currently serving a life sentence for orchestrating the 1993 World Trade Center attack.
Which is to say, the fact that the U.S. embassy was merely overrun and put to the torch while the black banner of al-Qaeda was raised over it fell far short of the worst-case scenario. Trouble was expected that day — as trouble should be expected every day for American facilities in the Islamic world, but particularly on September 11 — and threats had been issued publicly by jihadist organizations and reported in the region’s newspapers. The failure to adequately secure those facilities, and the questions related to who did what and when in response to the calls for help from Benghazi, may or may not produce a scandal in the common sense of that word. But embarrassing the opposition is not the only — or even the main — reason for investigation. Answering substantive questions about what went wrong that day and why is paramount.
It should go without saying that the Obama administration should have been forthright about what happened that day rather than try to deflect blame on to a “right-wing Christian” filmmaker and his alleged provocations. Beyond that, even with an election on the near horizon, the Obama administration probably did not really politically need to mislead the public about those events. Having our embassy in Cairo overrun was humiliating, and the deaths in Benghazi were shocking, but Americans are by this point used to seeing their countrymen killed in lands where Islam predominates, and they have suffered enough humiliations that one more was not going to cost anybody an election.
The Obama administration’s wider policy failures in the Middle East are significant, and they are partly the product of wishful thinking, partly the product of its narrow ideology, and partly the product of the fact that the American public to which he ultimately answers is itself incoherent on the question of what we should be doing there and how we should be doing it. But, even disinclined as I am toward being overly generous to President Obama, he is not the first president to underestimate the dangers and difficulties of the Middle East. The idea that the deaths in Benghazi, horrible though they were, would have been his undoing in the election if not for his administration’s disinformation campaign is probably wishful thinking. But for politicians of President Obama’s genus, truth is simply another multiple-choice proposition, and he and his people chose the version that best suited their immediate needs. One of the many problems with having a government dominated by law-school graduates is that lawyers suffer from a collective delusion that clever argument has a truth of its own, a unique moral weight independent of the facts. Recall that in the 1990s Bill Clinton was openly admired by Democrats for his deft touch with a lie: If you are winning, this line of thinking goes, then at some level you are also right.
In other words, the Obama administration did not mislead the American public about Benghazi out of political necessity; it misled the American public out of habit. And why wouldn’t it? From the economic effects of the stimulus bill to the GM bailout to blaming last quarter’s poor economic numbers on the fact that it is cold during the winter, the Obama administration has an excellent record for wholesaling fiction to the American electorate, which keeps enduring it. There is apparently enough collective intelligence in the Obama administration to hold in general contempt the wit and attention span of an American public that has elected it twice. Or perhaps the administration is fooling itself, too. A good huckster knows that he is a huckster, but a great huckster comes to sincerely believe in his own shtick, and perhaps somebody at the White House has read Good to Great.
If Americans have grown tired of being lied to, they are not showing much sign of it. The House, thankfully, has self-interested motives, which are the most reliable kind, for moving forward. A select committee to investigate Benghazi has been empaneled under the leadership of Representative Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), a former prosecutor. The Obama administration, which is populated with people who apparently have only the very slightest regard for the truth, should be reminded that while it might not be a crime to lie to the American public, it is a crime to lie to Congress and to obstruct its investigations.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.