Political Animal


November 19, 2012 3:36 PM Behind the Benghazi Frenzy

By Ed Kilgore

The continued Republican frenzy over the killings in Benghazi, which has now been going on for more than two months, is pretty obviously motivated by partisan opportunism, linked to the frustrated desire for an “Obama scandal,” and for validation of the underlying conservative narrative that the administration is more concerned about pandering to Muslims than protecting Americans. But putting all that aside (if you can), along with the Petraeus side-show, there’s the underlying problem of an U.S. diplomatic structure that is being encouraged to think first and foremost of its own safety, rather than its actual mission. This is the topic of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece by Robert Worth that traces the devolution of U.S. embassies and consulates from interactive listening posts to isolated fortresses, beginning most notably with the Beirut bombings of 1983. Here’s a brief excerpt from the detail-rich piece, which deserves to be read in its entirety:

Three decades later, after serving as an ambassador in three countries, [Ronald] Neumann found himself marveling at how much his profession has changed. “The dangers have gotten worse, but the change is partly psychological,” he told me. “There’s less willingness among our political leaders to accept risks, and all that has driven us into the bunker.”
Nothing illustrated those changes better than the death of J. Christopher Stevens, after an assault by jihadis on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Stevens was a brave and thoughtful diplomat who, like Neumann, lived to engage with ordinary people in the countries where he served, to get past the wire. Yet his death was treated as a scandal, and it set off a political storm that seems likely to tie the hands of American diplomats around the world for some time to come. Congressmen and Washington pundits accused the administration of concealing the dangers Americans face abroad and of failing Stevens by providing inadequate security. Threats had been ignored, the critics said, seemingly unaware that a background noise of threats is constant at embassies across the greater Middle East. The death of an ambassador would not be seen as the occasional price of a noble but risky profession; someone had to be blamed.

While Worth focuses on the Beirut bombings as the turning point, you could make a strong argument that the politicization of diplomatic deaths, and in turn the lowering of the “political risk” threshold, dates back to the Iran Hostage Crisis. Those searing events were intimately connected (in memory and symbolism more than election data) with the demise of the Carter Administration and the rise of Ronald Reagan (though Reagan himself initiated a literal withdrawal of U.S. diplomacy from Lebanon after the Beurit bombings).

As Paul Glastris argued this weekend on the McLaughlin Group (at about the ten minute mark in the video below), the Hostage Crisis introduced the idea that the physical safety of U.S. diplomats was an overriding measurement of national strength and even honor. This in turn created a political demand for the kind of partisan opportunism we are seeing over Benghazi, particularly since the GOP was already deeply invested in making the 2012 elections an echo of 1980, with Obama cast in the role of the allegedly weak and feckless Carter.

Yet because millions of Americans had the same perception of the Hostage Crisis as a historic low-point in U.S. prestige, the Benghazi frenzy, vastly excessive as it is on many levels, has obtained full-scale MSM credibility, unlike its domestic counterpart, the “Fast and Furious” brouhaha in Congress earlier this year, which did not gain significant purchase outside conservative media.

Personally, I’d say the syndrome that Worth and Glastris are talking about goes back further, at least to the days when Richard Nixon justified the perpetuation of the Vietnam War as necessary to “protect our troops as they withdraw.” Everyone naturally wants Americans sent into harm’s way to be exposed to as small a risk of death or injury as possible. But when war itself is waged “to protect the troops,” and when politicians call for militarized diplomatic posts that may defeat the whole purpose of diplomacy, we are letting the tail wag the dog to a highly irrational degree.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on November 19, 2012 4:00 PM:

    from the second this story hit the airwaves, it was clear the GOP would politicize it as far as they could. They are doing that x 10. To the point where Congressmen are stopping just short of calling for Obama's impeachment over it. It is important to remember that removing Obama from office is still their # 1 priority, regardless of the means. They'll keep this going, one committee after another, one Sunday Talk Show after another - until the next "scandal" comes along.

  • Hue and Cry on November 19, 2012 4:08 PM:

    "Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." ~~~~~~Thomas Jefferson

    Republicans are bitter, looking for revenge, longing for their watergate moment, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that General Patreaus just testified that information first given out about Benghazi was written in a way as to not tip off the terrorists.
    There's a comeuppance issue desired by Senators McCain and Graham that is so obvious that even an amateur psychologist would point to their singular fears of pending irrelevance. McCain looked ridiculous calling a press conference to complain about a lack of Benghazi information as he missed the actual meeting.
    Republican frenzy is a misplaced need for relevance, including the liars on Fox and those resenting the president for his success. Funny when Bill Kristol is making the most sense in the Republican party of today

  • kindness on November 19, 2012 4:34 PM:

    With all due respect no! The quote 'the Benghazi frenzy, vastly excessive as it is on many levels, has obtained full-scale MSM credibility' is wrong.

    The Benghazi attack has only reached credibility to those that actively WANT to skewer Democrats &/or President Obama. What the MSM talks about most Americans are smart enough to know not to care.

    The MSM speaks for itself and it's own insular closed loop world, not the one I live in.

  • c u n d gulag on November 19, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Does is occur to anyone that having Embassies that are armed to teeth, provoke the very people we are trying to reach out to?
    A good piece of the world can't stand America because of its militarism. And now, we have Embassies armed like forts in newly-captured territory? No, this isn't poking people in those coutries in the eye - not at all.

    We are provoking them by brandishing and parading our military power in their faces, at the very facilities that are supposed to be neutral, and be the home of diplomatic efforts.

    And look, after 8 years of tragedies, scandals, bumbles, fumbles, stupid wars, ineffective occupations, torture, weak oversight, dramatic overreach, and epic failure, what does anyone expect Republicans to do, but to try to bring President Obama's administration down to George W. "Baby Doc" Bush's level? Even if it's just a made-up, and even if it only takes Obama's reputation down a notch.

    Four years of effective government is the last thing Republicans wanted - and four more years, is very likely to ruin their "brand."
    So, these next four years may make Clinton's last four look peaceful in comparison.

    They can't allow sixteen years of good, effective Democratic goverment, to sandwich 8 years of the Republican's "Confederay of Dunces."

    Clinton went and got a BJ, so he couldn't be the Democrats version of their revered Reagan.
    And Lord knows, you can't have a black man, as the Democrat's Reagan!

  • MichMan on November 19, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Excellent post making a number of very good points.

  • JM917 on November 19, 2012 4:58 PM:

    I'm convinced that the Benghazi "scandal" is the opening shot in what will become a Republican effort to impeach and convict President Obama, due to climax in the summer of 2014. To Benghazi, the Republican House will attach a bunch of other "instances" of "unconstitutional," "illegal," "unethical," and "anti-American acts by the president (maybe even including attempting to enforce Obamacare), with an eye to forcing "vulnerable" Democratic senators to go on record as voting to dismiss these ridiculous charges. And who knows, they might get some so-called Dems like Manchin to vote to convict.

    All this will of course keep the Tea Party teakettle boiling furiously away through the fall of the next election cycle. Let's hope that it all blows up in the face of these Teatards and helps rout them from Congress in November 2014. The Teatards are just dumb enough to try...

  • TomParmenter on November 19, 2012 5:40 PM:

    It may seem harsh, but considering the never-abated enthusiasm for sending working-class young people out to die for their country, what is wrong with diplomatic personnel, ambassadors even, taking the same kinds of risks?

  • Joe Friday on November 19, 2012 6:37 PM:

    On 'THIS WEEK' yesterday, Senator Carl Levin mentioned that Petraeus SIGNED-OFF on the very "talking points" that Susan Rice utilized on the Sunday talk shows.

    RightWinger Peter King could not deny it.

  • c u n d gulag on November 19, 2012 6:39 PM:

    'Cause war is war, and diplomacy is diplomacy?

    And that war is the result of failed diplomacy?

    Is the sword mightier than the pen?
    And, if the ones with the pens fail, do we have to arm them with swords for the next meeting.

    Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject.

  • boatboy_srq on November 19, 2012 9:15 PM:

    One point about this whole thing that nobody's talking about.

    To the GOTea, an embassy is a trophy. Nothing more. The key tools in the GOTea diplomatic toolbox are the CVN, the Predator and the ICBM. Embassies - and everyone in them - are manifestations of the righteous dominion exercised by the US of A over all those Other countries.

    An attack on a US embassy - any US embassy - is disrespecting the USA. But since embassies and consulates can't (theoretically) be hardened in the same way a military base or task force is by definition, they represent weaker, more "attractive" targets.

    This is why the embassy in Baghdad was built up as the citadel it became: since the military installations were "temporary" it was built to fill the gap expected when they were dismantled. It had to be able to survive until the troops returned.

    Benghazi, in contrast with other installations, was a recent deployment hastily put together. In GOTea terms, it was too soon to place something on the ground as fragile as a diplomatic presence without an army base or aircraft carrier - the true tools of GOTea "diplomacy" - deployed close enough to effect the true US "diplomatic solution" to the situation.

    Thus, the primary reason Benghazi is such a symbol to the GOTea is that US lives were risked simply because BHO didn't go in and bomb the Libyans into the Stone Age where they belong. He showed weakness and they took advantage of it.

    Whatever discussions we have about the future of US diplomatic efforts, this has to be part of the discussion. The deterioration comes as much from the GOTea insistence that fear is the ideal tool of diplomacy, and that we need the DoD more than the State Dept, as it does any other component.

  • Philat on November 19, 2012 9:30 PM:

    As someone whose career was in intelligence/foreign policy, the Benghazi event as played by the GOP is one of the most egregious erroneous political stories of recent decades. As the hearings made clear on Friday and various sources speaking not for attribution, the facts should be clear to anyone with the slightest knowledge of how the world works. But the GOP bloviators are motivated only by their hatred of Pres. Obama and their never-ending crusade to somehow discredit him, whatever the facts. As someone old enough to have fought in combat during WWII, this is not what one wants to hear or view in ones twilight years, particularly to one whose life has been trying as best I could to serve my country. I also agree with the unfortunate citadel mentality re our embassies, particularly since visiting and working--briefly--in several during some of my working years. Sad...

  • Hue and Cry on November 19, 2012 9:45 PM:

    It was noted on one of the cable shows tonight that Republicans have ruthlessly gone after almost all of the president's staff who are black--Van Jones, Valerie Jarett, Susan Rice...it seems targeted and racist--and I am calling you out as intolerant, John McCain.

    Republicans are such dishonorable weenies

  • reidmc on November 19, 2012 10:51 PM:

    The right and the MSM may be paying some attention, but the American public has no idea where Benghazi is, and 99.5% of them can't name the dead ambassador. Even the right-wingers fanning the flames couldn't find it on a map.

  • Mountaindog on November 19, 2012 10:54 PM:

    As a retired diplomat (and having served with Ambassador Neumann in Kabul), I want to be sure it is clear that these rules are imposed by Congress and the senior political elected officials/appointees of both parties. The onerous security requirements, for both embassy buildings and personal travel, are almost universally despised by career foreign service officers, who understand that by isolating ourselves from the countries we are trying to understand, we only hurt ourselves.

  • Hue & Cry on November 20, 2012 7:57 AM:

    It was Richard Wolffe who pointed out the attacks by Republicans on the president's staff on Hardball:

    RICHARD WOLFFE: "I think it's Susan Rice. There is the question about John Kerry. But I think now that John McCain has sunk his teeth in, he's made it about presidential authority, and, frankly, it's outrageous that there is this witch hunt going on the right about these people of color, let's face it, around this president. Eric Holder, Valerie Jarrett, now Susan Rice. Before it was Van Jones. This is not about who is hawkish in the same way John McCain is about foreign policy because if you look at Iran and Libya, Susan Rice checks those boxes. This is a personal vendetta. It's about presidential authority."

  • Progress on November 20, 2012 2:57 PM:

    Maybe we can all come together and place the blame where it is due: YouTube.

  • BOb on November 20, 2012 3:34 PM:

    "Cut loose and left to die"?

    Do you have any evidence this Administration or the military intentionally got those people killed? Why they would want them dead? What possible purpose would it serve. It's absurd.

    It's you and the bitter right who are pissing on their graves.

  • boatboy_srq on November 20, 2012 4:14 PM:

    @Jack in Ga:

    Six words for you: "Bin Laden Determined To Strike US."

    Bush was President when 3000 were killed. Unlike at Benghazi, they were civilians who had no expectation whatsoever of any risk. Unlike at Benghazi, they were killed on US soil. And unlike at Benghazi they weren't working with a diverse and not-entirely-friendly collection of armed groups fresh from a violent and bloody revolution against their leadership. We didn't hear any condemnation of those circumstances from you lot back then, and anyone who DID have the temerity to ask questions got shouted down as "unpatriotic" and "unAmerican."

  • mnjam on November 20, 2012 4:27 PM:

    The ridiculous attempt to paint Benghazi as an Iran hostage or Watergate situation is further evidence -- not that any is needed -- that the Republican Party no longer has anything serious to say about policies to address big national problems, that it has degenerated into a mass of cowardly and hysterical reactionaries.

  • DAH on November 20, 2012 4:27 PM:

    A frenzy "pretty obviously motivated by partisan opportunism"?

    I, for one, would like to know the truth about why Ambassador Rice made statements implying the cause of the attack was the movie when it the statements were not accurate. Call that partisan opportunism, but it's not.

    Nor is it sexism or racism.

  • geezer117 on November 20, 2012 4:52 PM:

    Mr. Kilgore, I'm sure, is an honorable person who applies the same standards to all parties. The Democrat's standard allowed them to beat the drum for months when Dick Armitage carelessly revealed to Bob Novak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA. Democrats insisted that a special prosecutor determine if the President or his people had any involvement, despite utterly no evidence they did. And all this for an act of carelessness that had no ramifications whatever, that was not a crime. Valerie Plame was not harmed in any way.

    Now we have the case where the Administration ignored repeated attacks on the Benghazi consulate and withdrew their security. Americas were harmed as a result. The Administration was involved. A coverup was undertaken.

    Yet Democrats say to this day that they were fully justified and they were not politicizing the Valerie Plame case, and claim there is no justification for the investigations into Benghazi and it is all for partisanship.

    The utter hypocrisy of the Democrats is shameless. And I take back my opinion that Mr. Kilgore is honorable.