President Obama on Monday accused Republicans in Congress of playing “political games” with their efforts to discredit his administration’s handling of the response to last September’s assault on the U.S. diplomatic station in Benghazi, Libya.
There is growing support in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives for establishing a select committee with subpoena power to investigate accusations that the administration was derelict in its reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks on the diplomatic outpost, which resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other State Department workers.
Republicans accuse the Obama administration of not sending in military backup when it was requested by U.S. diplomats in Libya. The Defense Department has responded that Benghazi was too far away for any U.S. special forces teams to have arrived in time to have changed the outcome.
At a joint White House press conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama acknowledged that “clearly, [the U.S. State Department personnel in Benghazi] were not in a position where they were adequately protected.”
Obama, however, pushed back strongly against Republican accusations that the State Department altered CIA-prepared talking points in order to minimize the terrorist nature of the assaults. "The whole issue of this -- of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow."
“We don't have time to be playing these kinds of political games here in Washington,” the president said.
Obama said he and Cameron agreed in one-on-one talks earlier in the day to “continue to work to establish the facts around the use of chemical weapons in Syria and those facts will guide our next steps.”
The United States and the United Kingdom in recent weeks have said they are reasonably certain that the Bashar Assad regime has used sarin nerve agent against opposition forces on one or more occasions. Obama last year said chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war would cross a “red line” that would merit a strong but unspecified U.S. response.
The continuing absence of decisive action from Washigton on the purported chemical attacks has led pundits and foreign relations experts to heap criticism on Obama for weakening U.S. credibility. The president, though, has defended his tempered response on the grounds that there is not yet concrete evidence pointing to the deliberate use of chemical weapons and that it is not yet clear exactly who in Syria might have been behind any such attacks.
The Obama administration and partner governments are pushing for a technical U.N. investigation into the reported chemical attacks. That has been stymied for weeks by Damascus' refusal to permit the investigators to enter the country if they do not first agree to limit their probe to just regime allegations of chemical weapons use by opposition forces on the village of Khan al-Assal.
Cameron in an interview with NPR earlier on Monday said the evidence of chemical attacks by Damascus "is growing; the lack of room for doubt is shrinking," according to a Reuters report.
London is using the purported chemical attacks to build a case for amending the European Union arms embargo to Syria to allow the sale of weapons to rebels.
“Britain is pushing for more flexibility in the EU arms embargo,” Cameron told journalists at the White House, adding that his government intends to “double nonlethal support to the Syrian opposition in the coming year. Armored vehicles, body armor and power generators are ripe to be shipped.”
Should the European embargo be amended, Cameron hinted at but did not specifically say his government would provide the Syrian opposition with arms. “I do believe that there's more we can do -- alongside technical advice, assistance, help.”
If moderate Syrian rebels are not provided outside help then there is a strong likelihood that extremist militias in the country will only grow more powerful, the prime minister said. “If we don't work with that part of the opposition, then we shouldn't be surprised if the extremist elements grow.”