The Agenda

Ross Douthat on the Clumsy Response to Benghazi

Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times column clears up an issue I’ve found somewhat confusing: the fact that Al Qaeda remains alive and lethal isn’t necessarily a liability for the Obama administration, which gained enormous credibility in its successful effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden. So why were the president and his surrogates so reluctant to entertain the possibility that Al Qaeda or other organized terrorist groups were involved in the assassination of U.S. diplomatic personnel?

Perhaps, then, the real explanation for the White House’s anxiety about calling the embassy attack an act of terror has less to do with the “who” than with the “where.” This wasn’t Al Qaeda striking just anywhere: it was Al Qaeda striking in Libya, a country where the Obama White House launched a not-precisely-constitutional military intervention with a not-precisely-clear connection to the national interest.

In a long profile of President Obama published last month by Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis suggested that the president feared the consequences of even a single casualty during the Libyan incursion, lest it create a narrative about how “a president elected to extract us from a war in one Arab country got Americans killed in another.”

How much more, then, might the president fear a narrative about how our Libyan intervention helped create a power vacuum in which terrorists groups can operate with impunity? That’s clearly happened in nearby Mali, where the ripple effects from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s overthrow have helped empower a Qaeda affiliate. In this context, it’s easy to see why the administration would hope that the Benghazi attack were just spontaneous mob violence rather than a sign of Al Qaeda’s growing presence in postintervention Libya as well.

As Ross goes on to explain, however, the Romney-Ryan ticket is not explicitly anti-interventionist in its orientation, and so it is not obvious who would actually press this case. The most logical source of a critique of the Libya intervention and the “blowback” that seems to have followed would be the anti-war left. But the anti-war left has been drained of enthusiasm, resources, and attention since the inauguration of President Obama. 

Update: It occurs to me that I should word this somewhat more strongly. We’re in a moment in which there is no clear consensus among Republicans on the broad foreign policy questions. There is an elite consensus in favor of Pax Americana realism, or maintaining a preponderance of power, yet there is inchoate resistance to this approach in some corners of the grassroots right. Having recognized the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is unpopular, we don’t often hear full-throated calls from Romney-Ryan for an expanded commitment to Afghan security that would entail increased troop levels. We hear sharp GOP criticisms of the Obama administration’s foreign policy fecklessness and weakness vis a vis Iran and Syria, yet Republicans are generally reluctant to explicitly call for a military intervention in either country. I addressed some of these dynamics in a recent post on fault lines on the political right.  

Also, a reader kindly passed along a 2011 paper by sociologists Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas on how the character of the anti-war movement has changed in the wake of the 2008 election, the abstract of which reads as follows:

Changes in threats perceived by activists, partisan identification, and coalition brokerage are three mechanisms that help to explain the  demobilization of the antiwar movement in the United States from 2007 to 2009. Drawing upon 5,398 surveys of demonstrators at antiwar protests, interviews with movement leaders, and ethnographic observation, this article argues that the antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The withdrawal of Democratic activists changed the character of the antiwar movement by undermining broad coalitions in the movement and encouraging the formation of smaller, more radical coalitions. While the election of Barack Obama had been heralded as a victory for the antiwar movement, Obama’s election, in fact, thwarted the ability of the movement to achieve critical mass. [Emphasis added]

There is an obvious parallel among Republicans with respect to deficit reduction. Historically, at least, Republicans (as well as Democrats, to be sure) are far more concerned about deficits when the opposing party is in power. This is the main reason why many savvy political observers assume that a Romney administration would run quite large deficits in the short term without endangering support from conservatives. 


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