Politics & Policy

Was Benghazi a Scandal?

Scandals — or fundamental transformations?

If the CIA wanted to smuggle guns to Syria or interrogate al-Qaeda suspects in Benghazi, that was its business, not necessarily the administration’s. To the degree Obama was involved in overseeing events in Libya, his involvement was most likely limited to a vague warning that, in the latter part of the nip-and-tuck 2012 campaign, there must not be anything resembling a shoot-’em-up Mogadishu, which a beefed-up security presence in Benghazi might have made more likely by evening the odds. Better to keep a low profile amid increasing security threats and hope for the best. And, if the worst happens — well, things do happen.

When the violence did erupt, a freelance video producer became the perfect villain. Obama and his subordinates, principally Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton, almost immediately damned the hapless filmmaker as having incited global violence by his bigotry. The more Obama told the world that he too condemned Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (and in fact he had Mr. Nakoula jailed on a trumped-up probation violation), the more Benghazi became a sort of revolutionary morality tale: Right-wingers in America keep getting innocent people killed by gratuitously inflaming Muslims — over the objections of sober and judicious progressive and internationalist Americans.

It worked. Benghazi fizzled. Obama was reelected. Mr. Nakoula cooled his heels in jail. (Should Dinesh D’Souza have learned a lesson about what is in store for inconvenient filmmakers?) Obama had gone to bed early the night of Benghazi and washed his hands of the inconvenience, and for the last two years the military, the intelligence agencies, the State Department, and the media have been blame-gaming one another.

On another front, a majority of Americans are furious about the partisan corruption of the IRS, and the fact that Lois Lerner took the Fifth Amendment rather than answer questions about why her department focused inordinately on conservative groups. In the initial, but transitory, media furor, Barack Obama called the corruption of the IRS “outrageous.” After the buzz quieted, Lerner et al. rated from the president the assertion that there was not “a smidgen of corruption.”

So was the IRS abuse a scandal or an act of fundamentally transforming America? Certainly, senior U.S. senators felt no remorse about writing letters to the IRS to sic the tax agency on their political opponents. The defanging of the Tea Party, starting in April 2010, may have proved advantageous to Obama’s reelection bid. When Harry Reid lied on the Senate floor in claiming that he had heard that candidate Mitt Romney had not paid his taxes, the message went out that high-ranking Democrats supposedly had good connections with the taxmen.

Add it all up, and the corruption of the IRS sort of worked. There is now a revolutionary climate in the United States. If you are a high-profile donor, you may well worry that you will draw undue attention from the taxman — but only if you’re conservative. The Koch brothers might have to worry, but the Steyer brothers don’t.

In other words, the IRS mess successfully sent out a signal that progressive politicians will alert the IRS to monitor their opponents, their opponents will be monitored, and, if the agency is caught, not much will happen to it. Like it or not, the Obama administration has created a sort of deterrence by fundamentally transforming the IRS into an agency of progressive change. The result is to discourage high-profile donors from giving to conservative causes — or, conversely, to buy exemption by giving generously to liberal causes.

Was the Bowe Bergdahl mess a scandal? Ostensibly, no president in his right mind would trade five high-profile Taliban operatives, with ties to al-Qaeda, for an American deserter. What president would ignore the judgment of the intelligence community and the military, mock the law mandating consultation with Congress about such releases, and then conduct the most bizarre PR stunt in recent political history by wheeling out Sergeant Bergdahl’s father, in Taliban-like beard, no less, reciting Islamic prayers in native tongues?

But was the Bergdahl scandal also an effort at fundamental transformation? The administration had ordered the military to “salute” and to get on board with the Bergdahl party line. Susan Rice, as is her wont, misled the country by claiming the deserter had served with “honor and distinction.”

But so what? The fact that Rice once again offered an outright lie with impunity reiterates the message that facts are what the Obama administration says they are — period. In these strange times, we assume that Susan Rice on any given Sunday will lie to the American people, just as each week Harry Reid will spin some false narrative from the Senate floor, just as some 20- or 30-something committed Obama aide will smart off with slang on Twitter or get rowdy on the news shows. They do these things because they can, and they can because they say they are on the side of social justice.

Moreover, if one is going to ignore Congress and shut down Guantanamo, as long promised, then one starts by freeing the worst miscreants, given that it will be downhill from there. Already the likelihood that Bergdahl was a deserter has been turned around on his critics: Those whose lives Bergdahl put at greater risk are now “Swift-Boaters.” A minor HUD official asked out loud whether Bergdahl might have had good reasons to leave his band of supposedly psychopathic brother soldiers. The Taliban certainly think the United States has thrown in the towel, and they may appreciate the idea that for the next two years they need only keep a low profile to allow Obama to leave without too much violence, before they roll into Kabul in victory in 2017. The Bergdahl swap was just part and parcel of negotiations to get out of Afghanistan without fanfare before the Taliban retake Kabul.

Obama seems to think his legacy will be “ending” “two wars” (whether by losing them or not), shutting down Guantanamo by hook or crook, and vastly cutting the military to avoid any such interventions in the future. He may be right.

The Bergdahl swap certainly helped further that end, and it served as a catalyst for the U.S. withdrawal from the war. Not coincidentally, it got the VA scandal off the evening news. Even the sordid PR stunt of bringing in the Bergdahl parents, in a farcical attempt to replay the spike-the-ball Osama bin Laden press conference, was a sort of transformative in-your-face gesture. The president smiled as Mr. Bergdahl recited Islamic prayers and as he sought to appear Taliban-like in speech and appearance. In our new multicultural age, why not? For Obama, that certainly beats another southern-accented congressman talking about “desertion” and “maybe treason.” Fox News thinks the swap may be the end of Obama; I fear that the president’s ratings more likely may stabilize or go up.

Is the VA mess a scandal? For Obama, not really. Aside from the fact that his minions have already blamed George W. Bush (in the formulaic style of the elder Cato, who for a time ended every speech with the line “Carthago delenda est”), Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and other prominent progressives have also scapegoated the military-industrial complex along the following lines: Going to unnecessary wars means lots of wounded veterans, and having lots of wounded veterans overtaxes a once-noble system of health care, and so this is what you get when you go to a Bush war. Did anyone really believe that Obama would hold responsible scores of unionized and unaccountable GS employees and their politically appointed directors — much less the corrupt system that begat them?

The reason that Obama did not immediately fire the hapless General Eric Shinseki was not just that the latter had earned iconic liberal status for taking on the Iraq War from the inside. More likely, Obama simply did not find the horrendous bureaucratic mess all that alarming. It was a military problem; let the military sorts handle it. If the virtual destruction of the VA system is a scandal that has come and gone in less than a week, was it a scandal at all? Or a transformation in the way we envision the VA?

How about all the non-enforcement of immigration laws? The surges across the borders of illegal aliens in anticipation of a border rendered irrelevant? The sort of executive-order amnesties that Obama warned before he was reelected that he simply had no legal authority to issue? The dumping of hundreds of immigrants in Arizona to punish the recalcitrant governor?

For Obama, open borders with Mexico are revolutionary ends that require the necessary means to achieve them. New influxes of illegal aliens represent a fundamental transformation of America. Many of them look to government for help; they will in time become proper Democratic households; and they are a club to hit conservatives with, as being insensitive to Latino needs. The law, in other words, is a small bump on the highway to social justice. Who cares if some are rattled a bit by speeding over it?

Was the Associated Press monitoring a scandal or a warning of what Obama is willing to do to get the media to cool it? Were the lies that helped sell Obamacare a scandal or also the necessary means to reach the desired ends? What will history remember, Obama wonders: that the president of the United States lied about keeping your doctor and your insurance plan under Obamacare, or that the Affordable Care Act was finally enacted?

Law professors will fight in journals over whether Obama had the right to pick and choose which elements of his own law he would enforce in any given political cycle. But that mini-controversy is less important than the fact there were indeed Obama laws to pick and choose from.

In sum, what many Americans see as scandals are not scandals to the Obama administration. Our president believes instead that the law is fluid. Statutes are mere constructs dressed up by those with inordinate power to paper over race, class, and gender biases.

For the nobly progressive, the desired equality of result at home and greater fairness toward nations abroad require a sort of deconstruction of “settled law.” Liberal elites may be forced to emasculate their enemies, if need be, by politicizing the IRS, or by ignoring the law through executive orders, or by sending out officials to peddle untruths, or by doing almost anything necessary to enact social justice here and abroad. Some call it scandalous, but others see it as empowering and long overdue.

The more such scandals occur in the next two years, the more they will not be seen as scandals, but as mere bothersome hurdles to fundamentally changing America. In the age of Obama, you win the race not by playing by the fossilized rules of jumping over the track’s hurdles — but instead by running right through them to reach the finish line first.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.


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