More blather on Benghazigate

Benghazi was a tragedy, not a scandal that deserves a 'gate'

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It's 10 times worse than Watergate and Iran-Contra put together. At least that is the talking point of the moment for Republicans. They claim that the response of the Obama administration to the attacks on the diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the lives of four Americans is an order of magnitude worse than the crimes committed by the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

That's not exactly a comparison that highlights the accomplishments of previous Republican presidents. But what is even more ridiculous is the response of those parroting that talking point when they are asked what criminal activities they think the Obama administration has engaged in. They admit they don't know, but then they claim that is why they have to keep digging.

Their latest contribution to the attempt to make Benghazigate into a major scandal was a six-hour congressional hearing on Wednesday orchestrated by Darrel Issa. He is the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform whose resume also includes allegations of arson, car theft and insurance fraud while he was getting rich in the car-alarm business.

The hearing featured three government employees Mr. Issa described as whistleblowers although it was never clear about what they were blowing their whistles. One headed up the office that ran the Foreign Emergency Support Team, which is dispatched to an embassy to help handle emergencies. He complained that his advice was ignored and the team not sent.

The problem was that the crisis was in Benghazi and not in Tripoli where the embassy is located. And the situation in Benghazi was so chaotic it was not one where the team could have helped. FEST members are good at communications and crisis management; they are not combat troops.

A team of seven that did include combat troops was in Tripoli and ready to fly to Benghazi, but they were also put on hold. Seven shooters are not going to restore order and come to the rescue in the midst of an armed assault by dozens, however, and they probably would have presented only another handful of targets to the terrorists. As for flying over the city with jets, as one witness suggested: They were not available and wouldn't have helped if they had been. There would not be a euphemism like "collateral damage" if our bombs were always able to distinguish between friend and foe, especially in the midst of chaos.

With the exception of the embassies in Bagdad and Kabul, none of the hundreds of American diplomatic facilities around the world are prepared to withstand a sustained attack by scores of militants using weapons that include mortars. The assumption always is that the local police and military will respond and restore order before the embassy or consulate is destroyed. But in Benghazi there were no local security forces willing and able to react in time. Perhaps that should have been anticipated, but the only way to keep diplomats completely safe is to never let them leave Washington.

From the very first reports of the attack, Republicans have been trying to spin the story to maximize the damage to the president and to the most likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. They have argued in effect that this one incident demonstrates that President Barack Obama's Middle East policy, and by extension his entire foreign policy, is a failure. If the State Department and White House are guilty of anything, it is trying to spin the story in the other direction to counter that criticism -- perhaps to the point of misleading the country.

Putting petty politics aside, the real question is whether Benghazigate is worth all the attention. The day after the hearing there was an interesting juxtaposition of two stories on NPR. The first was a report on what transpired at the hearing. The second was about the sinking morale of federal government workers due in part to the fact that they have not received a pay raise in years and feel their work is unappreciated.

Sequestration is the budgetary version of Chinese water torture and will only further discourage those who serve our country as it whittles away at everything they are trying to do. Perhaps Washington politicians might devote less time to exploiting the deaths of government employees for partisan reasons and devote more time to solving the slowly growing crisis that affects those still living.

Fat chance.

opinion_commentary

Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador who served 28 years in the Foreign Service, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University (dcj10@sia.psu.edu).


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