It was the best of Reports. It was the worst of Reports. Yesterday the House Benghazi Committee finally revealed its long-awaited 800-page report detailing its findings regarding the 2012 attacks in Libya. The New York Times headlined its story this way: “House Benghazi Report Finds No New Evidence of Wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.” The online magazine The Hill saw it differently: “Benghazi panel faults Clinton.” Predictably, the pundits lined up in their respective partisan camps. Thus the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank concluded, “There’s still no smoking gun from Benghazi — just a lot more smoke.” At the New York Post, however, John Podhoretz cites the Report as further evidence of administration deception.
Both perspectives have some merit, I suppose. But, in my view, neither is particularly relevant. The real story here is what Benghazi reveals about decisionmaking at the highest levels of government, and how little influence a President and his immediate advisers have over critical events as they unfold, in no small part because they are often operating under a great deal of uncertainty. (Full disclosure – I’ve only read portions of the 800-page report.) A few examples from the Report help drive home the point. First, in an emergency two-hour meeting convened by the President as the attack unfolded, much of the discussion centered over the role played by an anti-Muslim video on YouTube in inciting the attack. But the Report concludes the video probably played no role in the Benghazi attack, something Clinton acknowledged in a conversation with the Egyptian government a day after the attack. The Report put it this way:
Second, despite orders from Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to mobilize a military response, military assets in the region never got their act in gear. Referencing an email sent by deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough the Report notes:
The one military response that did occur took place on the initiative of a local CIA operative.
Third, Susan Rice, the administration’s United Nations ambassador, made comments on several Sunday talk shows
the day after the attack that apparently had not been fully vetted by the intelligence or diplomatic services. Her erroneous claim that the attacks were spontaneous would cause huge problems for the administration in the months to come when they were shown to be incorrect.
Finally, the Left Hand often did not know what the Right Hand of government was doing. So, when it came to evacuating personnel, the Defense Department assumed State was overseeing the operation, but State was waiting to locate Ambassador Stevens first. Many officials, apparently, didn’t realize the CIA had its own facility in Benghazi. As the Report noted:
To me, these are less signs of administration deception than they are evidence of understandable confusion, and the need to take action under conditions of incomplete information. Was the administration concerned about the potential political fallout from the Benghazi attack? Of course they were – and justifiably so! By political I mean not just the presidential election that was currently underway – although that was likely a concern – but also the ramifications for the political dynamics in Libya and the Arab world more generally. It is the President’s job, along with his political advisers, to keep tabs on the political impact of events. To avoid thinking politically in the broad sense of the word would be a dereliction of duty.
My point here is not to exonerate Clinton, or the Obama administration more generally, for responsibility for what happened in Benghazi. But in my view the criticism is more properly directed at the earlier decision to intervene in Libya without fully anticipating how to deal with the subsequent power vacuum resulting from the overthrow of the Gadhafi government. Benghazi was a consequence of that choice.
To be clear, I haven’t finished wading through the full report. (I suspect portions of it will be required reading in my bureaucracy class.) But in my view its importance lies not in its potential impact on Clinton’s candidacy, even though that is how the media is covering its release. Instead, it is in revealing the inner workings of a presidential administration trying to respond to a critical event as it unfolds. This is what makes this document an interesting read, and why it is significant – even though it is unlikely to have any significant influence on the presidential campaign.
Often my students and readers get mildly irritated with me (or worse) when I persist in stating that this highly-publicized event (Orlando shooting, Brexit, fill-in-the-blank) is unlikely to have much impact on the presidential race, unless it occurs just before the actual vote. “How can this be?” you ask. “It’s all anyone is talking about!” The answer is that these events don’t usually change the underlying factors that drive people’s vote. Yes, they may provide a short-term impact on attitudes related to the event – say, a boost in support for a ban on assault weapons. But they don’t usually persuade a Republican-leaner to vote Democrat, or vice versa. This is partly because partisan attachment serves as a frame of reference that helps an individual make sense of the event in a way that tends to confirm one’s world view. We saw this in the immediate reaction to the Orlando shooting, where those with strong partisan predispositions immediately sought to explain the event in a way that was consistent with their political beliefs. Those partisan attachments condition how we respond to news reports by influencing which reports we believe.
I expect the same reaction to the Benghazi Report. Is Milbank right? Or Podhoretz? It depends on your partisan leanings! Trump supporters are sure to cite the Report as more evidence that Clinton’s actions led indirectly (or directly!) to the death of four Americans. Her supporters will reference that portion clearing Clinton of immediate culpability and say that after multiple investigations into the incident “enough is enough”. And after 48 hours or so the media will move on to the next breaking story.
The Benghazi Report. It’s a bombshell. Or not.