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What Benghazi Says About Today's Political Climate

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Libyans walk on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Libyans walk on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Ibrahim Alaguri/AP file photo

For political analysts—or at least those who try to be independent and nonpartisan—an occupational hazard is that at almost any given time, one side or the other will be angry about what you say and write. During the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, many conservatives and Republican partisans were unhappy to hear me say that a winnable race was slipping away from them, some believing all the way to Election Day that they would win. In 2010, and now in 2014, it is Democrats who are less than thrilled with our prognostications.

Another occupational hazard is cynicism. Elected officials and candidates, along with their handlers, say and do things that I am pretty sure they know better than to do. Or ought to know better than to do. They at least know that there is another important side to every story, especially when they decide to leave out pertinent facts as they heave rhetorical red meat to their party's base. They do what they feel they need to do to maximize their chances of winning, even if fairness or truth get a little bent in the process. A by-product of this tendency to bend the truth is that the public, or at least the slice that relies exclusively on ideological voices and sources for their news, can get an awfully one-sided perspective.

Frequent questions have arisen of late, mostly from conservatives, about the tragic killing of four Americans in Benghazi. These people have heard questions raised on cable television, and they haven't heard or read satisfactory answers to why and how the tragedy happened. I have no doubt that their concerns and questions are sincere.

I also have no doubt that things could have been done to prevent the horrible incident and that, in retrospect, Obama administration officials and political appointees, as well career civil servants and members of the military, wished they had handled some things differently. But many asking the questions seem unaware of certain facts and points of view. Last March, when Face the Nation moderator Bob Schieffer asked former Defense Secretary Robert Gates about Benghazi, Gates, who had left his post 14 months before the attacks occurred, said, "Frankly, had I been in the job at the time, I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were." Keeping in mind that Gates had been initially appointed by President George W. Bush and, in his bookDuty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, was unsparing in his criticism of President Obama and many administration decisions, this information is something that people deeply concerned about Benghazi don't seem to know, have forgotten, or conveniently ignore.

Gates went on to say that certain people seem to have a "cartoonish" view of military capabilities in such situations:

"I've heard, 'Well, why didn't you just fly a fighter jet over and try and scare 'em with the noise or something?' Well, given the number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from [Muammar el-] Qaddafi's arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft—a single aircraft—over Benghazi under those circumstances. And with respect to sending in special forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I have read, people really didn't know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously. And to send some small number of special forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, I think, would have been very dangerous."

The cynicism comes when one recalls an even greater tragedy that occurred on Oct. 23, 1983, when the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, were bombed during Ronald Reagan's administration. In the latest New Yorker, Jane Mayer writes about having been in Beirut as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal at the time of the horrible bombing, when 241 American military personnel, including 220 Marines, were killed in the largest single-day loss of Marines since Iwo Jima in World War II. Although Democrats controlled the House and Tip O'Neill was speaker, there was little partisan grandstanding over the tragedy, even though mistakes were made. As Mayer notes, a gate was left open, and the personnel on guard were under orders to keep their weapons unloaded. Congress conducted a matter-of-fact, brief investigation, recommendations were made, and everyone moved on. Scoring political points was not the name of the game, even though the loss of American lives was more than 50 times greater than in Benghazi. It was a different era.

One wonders how some of these conservatives would have reacted to such circumstances. Selective outrage is rampant in our political process today. The facts are too often swept to one side, or under the rug, for political purposes.

This article appears in the May 10, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Seeing Both Sides.

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