When Obama campaign surrogate Stephanie Cutter first made her by-all-accounts bizarre statement that the only reason anyone was talking about the Obama administration's response to the attacks in Benghazi was because of the Republican ticket, many observers probably brushed it off as the kind of one-off campaign surrogate gaffe that often happens the era of the 24 hour news cycle.
That was before the Obama campaign made that argument the centerpiece of their response.
It's difficult to recall a moment in Presidential history when the response by a sitting administration to a major foreign policy crisis has evinced so little curiosity about what actually happened, so much indifference to inconvenient evidence, and such a nakedly political view of what is, properly speaking, a life-or-death issue for American diplomats, intelligence agents and soldiers. Faced with a major attack on America's strategic assets and diplomatic actors, the administration has focused almost entirely on redistributing blame from its leaders onto other people.
Where this becomes truly bizarre is the fact that, with the exception of the accusations against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the very people being blamed are the people actively responsible for pursuing America's interests abroad. That is to say that rather than take the word of its own diplomats and intelligence sources about the inadequacy of its response, the administration has instead blamed those people for that response.
David Axelrod's appearance on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace today shows this problem clearly, as Axelrod attempted to lay the blame for the administration's failure to preempt the Libya attack squarely at the door of the intelligence community, and the State Department. In answer to a question about Vice President Joe Biden's demonstrably false argument that the embassy in Libya hadn't requested more security, Axelrod argued that the embassy's requests had gone unheard in the White House, even if they had been received by the State Department, as Red Alert Politics notes:
“There’s no doubt that some of these matters went into the security department at the state security agency at the State Department, but it didn’t come to the white house and that what is the vice president was responding to,” Axelrod claimed.
Axelrod tried to shift blame off of the President, saying that he was in contact with his national security advisers during his campaign trip to Las Vegas throughout the evening of the attack and said he was only responsible for what happened in the sense that he’s responsible for everything that happens to the United States because he is the President. But in the specific case of the communication breakdown that led to the death of U.S. abassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the State Department is at fault Axelrod said, before craftily claiming that this issue isn’t about “blaming” anyone.
In other words, the State Department willfully ignored the problem, and the White House never heard about it. Similarly, Axelrod claimed that the entire Obama administration thought that the Youtube video "The Innocence of Muslims" had been responsible for the attacks, in flat contradiction of what the official story from the State Department has been. Again, from Red Alert:
Axelrod also tried to rewrite history by claiming that no one ever said that the attack was not in response to a vile YouTube video of the Prophet Muhammad.
“It isn’t us or anyone else who is suggesting that that’s what the intelligence was at the time,” he said. ”For example, when Secretary Rice, Ambassador Rice appeared on your program and other programs, anyone would have said the same thing that she said because that was the intelligence we were receiving,” he claimed, pointing out that CIA Director Ethan Klapper and other officials at the State Department were on the record as having made similar comments.
But as Wallace pointed out, Axelrod’s statement contradicts the State Department’s claims from last week that it was never State’s opinion that the video caused the siege.
At least one of these dodges - that the State Department didn't pass on the information about Libya needing more security - is difficult to prove wrong without being a fly on the wall in the White House. There is a distinct air of "he said, she said" (literally, given that the two competing stories come from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) about that part of the mess.
However, the question of the video being used as an explanation despite apparently not being accepted as legitimate by the State Department is more problematic. More than a few generally sympathetic journalists have scratched their heads about why the administration sought to make this explanation so dominant. Most of the explanations that have been offered have boiled down to political calculation rather than earnest confusion.
And then there are the more unsympathetic explanations, such as that offered by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today:
They’re trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that the Mid-East– the wars are receding and that al-Qaeda has been dismantled. And to admit that our embassy was attacked by al-Qaida operatives, and [in] Libya leading from behind didn’t work, I think undercuts that narrative. They never believed the media would investigate, Congress was out of session, and this caught up with them. I think they’ve been misleading us, but it finally caught up with them.[...]
Either they’re misleading the American people, or incredibly incompetent. There was no way with anybody looking at all that you could believe five days after the attack that it was based on a riot that never occurred… This is the same administration that leaks every detail of classified operations that are successful… When something goes bad, they deny, they deceive, and they delay. And the truth is, we’re not safer. Al-Qaeda is alive– Bin Laden may be dead–Al-Qaeda is alive, and they’re counter-attacking throughout the entire region.
Under normal circumstances, Graham's uncharitable reading of the situation could be at least partially chalked up to partisanship. But unlike those circumstances, his accusations have the advantage of being backed up by facts from the administration's own Department of State, which has been aggressively pushing back on the "blame the State Department" narrative currently being propagated by the Obama campaign. A recent piece in the Daily Mail suggest that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself might be leading the charge in refuting this narrative:
The State Department has said that it never believed the September 11th attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the result of a protest over an anti-Islam movie - directly contracting the rest of the Obama administration.
By trying to distance her department from the inept and deceptive handling of the Benghazi attack, which left U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American officials dead, Hillary Clinton could help herself politically for a 2016 presidential run.
A dramatic new account by the State Department reveals that Stevens was locked inside a 'safe room' choking to death from diesel-heavy smoke as the building around him burned to the ground.
Alongside him was a security guard, tasked with the impossible choice between staying in the deadly room - or facing the rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns outside.
Eventually the guard slipped through the window - and was cut down by the grenades.
No-one saw the ambassador alive again - another agent tried desperately to enter the safe-room, but could not find him anywhere.
The State Department also held a conference call with reporters where it aggressively pushed its own version of the story, the transcript of which was posted on Powerline.
This obvious gulf between the White House and the State Department has prompted suspicion even from the President's defenders. The New York Times, a paper often described by conservatives as one of the more biased in America, has posted a note from their public editor dissenting from the paper's decision not to put the Libya story on the front page:
I believe that the Libya hearing story belonged on The Times’s front page. It had significant news value, regardless of the political maneuvering that is inevitable with less than four weeks to go until the election. And more broadly, there is a great deal of substance on this subject that warrants further scrutiny.
I can’t think of many journalistic subjects that are more important right now, or more deserving of aggressive reporting.
Fortunately for those with the same proclivities as the Times' public editor, and unfortunately for the administration, the "aggressive" reporting that has been done by the likes of Eli Lake at the Daily Beast shows that the truth is increasingly at loggerheads with the Obama campaign's version of events. Yet when faced with a serious question of internal dissension from their own State Department, the Obama administration and the campaign have been united in their apparent desire to change the subject to Mitt Romney's supposed exploitation of this issue for political gain. This despite the fact that Romney himself has precisely zero power over what happens in Libya, and his criticism increasingly is echoed by the mainstream press.
Even to a sympathetic observer, one would be hard pressed to understand how this comes off as anything less than a misreading of priorities by the administration. A United States ambassador is dead, and Al Qaeda is resurgent in a region of the world where one of America's most prominent recent humanitarian interventions took place. Surely the administration should be focused on getting the answers, rather than blaming the criticism on the opposition party. Combine this odd set of priorities with the administration's persistent attempts to make the State Department and the intelligence community its scapegoats, rather than adhering to the age-old Presidential adage that "the buck stops here," and you face a potentially ugly conclusion.
In the Obama administration, politics may just be a higher priority than looking after the people who ensure America's interests are served abroad.