After Benghazi

09.26.12

Obama and the World, and the Wrongheaded Right

The right tried for several days to push the Benghazi story, attempting obviously and desperately to hang the deaths of the four Americans around Obama's neck, and, more than that, to suggest that the rioting and the deaths proved what a miserable failure Obama has been on the world stage.

The argument, taken to new extremes by Paul Ryan's invocations of Jimmy Carter, had some oxygen there for a little while. Obviously, those consulate deaths were horrific, and there should be (and is) an investigation; why extra security wasn't present on the anniversary of 9-11 is an entirely legitimate question and one we need an answer to.

Presidential campaign or no presidential campaign, we have a dead ambassador, and his death was more than a "bump in the road," Obama's ill-chosen and actually somewhat callous phrase from 60 Minutes. We must know what happened.

But the story here is not the one the right wing is hoping for. The first part of the story is quite mundane, albeit important. It's just about diplomatic security. Go Google "diplomatic security inadequate" or "diplomatic security underfunded" and you will see stories, covering every administration, with officials giving the expected warnings.

But it's simply not an issue that commands much public attention until something like Bengazi happens. The bottom line issue here, as a former Clinton-era foreign-policy official explained to me yesterday, is that the State Department just doesn't have the money. The vast disparity in State vs. Pentagon funding is an issue of ongoing concern to people who work in this field. Catherine Crier wrote on her blog shortly after the attacks:

Diplomacy is a critical arm of our national security, yet there are more people in our military marching bands than in the State Department’s Foreign Service. In light of Tuesday’s tragic events in Benghazi, isn’t it about time we address the vast discrepancies between the annual budgets for the Defense Department ($614B) and the State Department ($51.6B)?

State can't just whistle up 50 Marines. It doesn't work that way and has never worked that way, under presidents of both parties. Maybe it should, but then embassies and consulates become different things than they are today. Ambassador Stevens believed in open and accessible facilities. It may have been a tragic belief ultimately in his case but it was the right one on balance for America.

The administration has mishandled the aftermath of the attacks in its usual insular way. Apparently Hillary Clinton went up to the Hill and told lawmakers nothing. Why go? This insularity is a long-held and well-known habit of this administration when setbacks happen, and it's not admirable.

But it's also not a scandal. And it's not going to be a big factor in the presidential race. Maybe if the riots had continued. But they've settled down a bit. And of course we have the inspiring sight of the pro-American rallies in Benghazi. Look at these photographs. These photographs and the sentiment they express "help" Obama politically. But they help our country more. Conservatives, I hope your hatred of Obama isn't so great that you won't permit yourselves to be moved by these (how many comments do you think it will take before someone says they're staged?).

Finally, Obama, who erred badly in that 60 Minutes phrase, showed real and meaningful leadership yesterday at the UN. He emphasized just the right things. Tom Friedman has an important column in today's Times, reiterating Obama's themes about free speech and openness, quoting several Arab-world journalists saying that violence is totally unacceptable and that Arabs should look inward and accept the need for changes.

To my conservative readers, I say you want to be careful here. When Bush was president, too many liberals ended up somehow positioning themselves against democracy just because Bush was for it. Do you really want to make the same mistake in the other direction?