The Truth About the Benghazi Report

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.

Why Trump Is Losing…er….Winning This Race

Donald Trump is losing the presidential race.  I know, because the pundits are telling me so.  According to them, Donald Trump has endured a very bad week – no, a very bad month! – one that has severely damaged his presidential candidacy. Beginning with his questionable attack on the ethnic heritage of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, through his tone-deaf response to the Orlando night-club tragedy, to the recent FEC report indicating Trump had raised virtually no money in the last fiscal quarter, and ending with the shakeup of his campaign staff, Trump managed to destroy whatever momentum he might have gained by locking up the Republican nomination. As a result, the pundits say, he has lost ground to Clinton in the presidential race, as measured in recent surveys showing Clinton expanding her lead.  Some pundits are already proclaiming Trump be “an incredibly weak presumptive nominee, perhaps among the weakest ever” with some predicting he won’t break 40% in the popular vote. Not surprisingly, there are indications that Republicans are experiencing deep buyer’s remorse, and efforts to free delegates to vote their conscience at the Republican convention are picking up steam. No wonder Trump’s unfavorable rating has reached a record high of 70%!

Welcome to the media’s Silly Season.  With both major parties’ nominations essentially clinched (pay no attention to those contested convention rumors) we are officially entering a protracted period in which pundits handicap the presidential contest in terms of each candidate’s ability to “win” a media cycle, which is typically the period associated with a dominant news story. To win, the media must judge a candidate to have gotten the better of their rival in terms of reacting to that news story, or creating a new one.  They can do so by any number of means – a clever advertisement, a carefully prepared speech, an effective photo op or simply by avoiding the all-important “gaffe”.  Often polls are used to “prove” the accuracy of the media’s collective judgment regarding who won.  Under this horserace scenario, after clinching their respective nominations candidates start off essentially even, and whoever is better at winning these media cycles will eventually take home the ultimate prize come November: the presidency. And right now, thanks to Trump’s gaffes, Clinton is pulling ahead.

There’s only one problem with the framework: it’s almost certainly wrong.  Presidential elections are not horseraces, in which the winning candidate’s trip to the finish line can only be charted on a step-by-step basis, with no clear way at the start to predict which one will get there first. In fact, decades of political science research shows that there is an underlying structural equilibrium to a presidential contest based on fundamental factors such as the state of the economy, whether the nation is at war, and how long the incumbent party has occupied the White House, and that much of what the media cites as critical in their daily coverage has almost no lasting impact on this dynamic.

This is not to say that campaigns don’t matter.  They do.  But not in the way that this on-going media narrative suggests.  Instead, campaigns serve as a means by which each candidate makes those fundamental factors salient to voters, preferably in ways that advantage their candidacy at the expense of their opponent’s.   Crucially, however, these campaigns cannot create their own reality via clever tactics – they must deal with the hand fate has dealt them.  Assuming both candidates play their hands effectively in a strategic sense by choosing the proper frame, the outcome is not as open-ended as the pundits’ horserace perspective would have us believe.

Now it is possible that this year will be different – that Trump’s candidacy will be so gaffe-prone and disorganized that it will override the fundamentals in a way that hands Clinton the victory.  Or perhaps he will choose the wrong campaign frame given the underlying fundamentals. This is what some analysts believe happened in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore adopted a populist strategy rather than focusing on the rather favorable economic conditions he inherited from his predecessor.  It may be, then, that the pundits are right – that Trump’s recent “gaffes” are evidence that he’s not up to snuff when it comes to running a national campaign.  On the other hand, the same criticisms were leveled at him through the nominating race, and yet he somehow managed to vanquish 16 opponents.

No matter.  The pundits have spoken. Trump’s poor choice of campaign tactics has left him dangerously behind in the race for the Presidency, and there’s the possibility he may never catch up……Wait!  Great Britain, in a stunning demonstration of populist strength, has voted to leave the European Union!  Given the obvious parallels between the Brexit movement and Trump’s candidacy, this is good news for Trump, and clear evidence that we’ve been underestimating his chances of winning!  The race is on again!

(Note: as my academic leave comes to an end and I finish up a book project, I’ll be posting shorter pieces that, alas, may be a little lighter on the political science research side than I’d like.  Please bear with me, but I do have a day job to keep.)

Is Trump Hitler? I Have A Better Question

Since the start of this year’s most unusual presidential campaign, I have given dozens of election-themed talks to audiences ranging from senior citizens to high-school students.  During the Q&A period after my lectures, a version of one question is almost always asked:  “Is Trump Hitler?”

The first time this happened, during a talk I gave last fall, the question was posed by a former State Department Foreign Service officer who went on to suggest we were experiencing what the Weimer Republic went through before the rise of Nazi Germany. I don’t remember my response, but I do know the question caught me by surprise. As it became apparent that Trump was going to secure the Republican nomination, however, the question was asked more frequently, and not just by my audience members. National pundits got into the act as well. Andrew Sullivan warned that Trump, and his “neo-Fascist movement” was an “extinction-level event.”  In his survey of Trump’s rise, Robert Kagan explained that, “This is how fascism comes to America.”  Trump was,  Peter Steinfels summarized, “the semi-fascist candidate.” Eventually, Trump’s wife Melania felt compelled to publicly rebut the accusation: “We know the truth. He’s not Hitler,” she insisted in an interview with Dujour magazine   “He wants to help America. He wants to unite people. They think he doesn’t but he does.”  It did little good.  Responding to Melania, the New Yorker’s Adam Gropnik replied, “He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was.”

Until he was.  That’s the key element to this Trump-is-Hitler argument.  Initially, as I began to anticipate this question after my lectures, I would try to point to the many ways that Trump is not Hitler – he hasn’t organized a putsch, or written about the need for living space, or expressed a desire to exterminate people, for instance.  Nor is the United States much like post-World War I Germany, a country with little experience with parliamentary democracy.  And there’s that cultural argument as well, if you believe that line of reasoning.  (I’m skeptical.)  Invariably, the comeback is, “Well, he isn’t Hitler yet!  But wait until he takes power…..”

After a time, I realized that the questioners didn’t really want to hear my answer.  They were already convinced Trump IS Hitler. Nothing I can say would dissuade them from that belief.  And so now, when I am asked if I believe Trump is Hitler, my response is: “I don’t know.  Is Bernie Sanders Mao?”  That usually flummoxes them long enough for me to move on to the next question.

Now, I don’t actually believe Sanders is Mao.  Not yet.  But who knows what will happen if he somehow captures the Democratic nomination?  If the choice is Sanders or Trump, it’s not inconceivable that come November a majority of voters will choose Sanders.  And then what? Anyone who has been assaulted by Bernie Bros on social media  understands that his supporters are willing to do most anything to further his cause.  In this regard, the death threats and near-riot from Sanders’ supporters in Nevada may just be a preview of things to come!

If Mao…er…Sanders does take power, the first victim is likely to be the First Amendment.  Already we are seeing free speech come under assault on our college campuses under the guise of furthering “diversity.” A generation of young students – most of them Bernie supporters – is embracing this type of mind control without a moment’s hesitation.  First they took our Halloween costumes, and we did nothing.  Next…..

Say goodbye to a free press as well.  President Sanders is almost certain to push for a state-run media organization. After all, Sanders’ supporters routinely rail against the “corporate media”.  Under the Sandersista regime, our children will grow up watching “Sanders Street.”

And it won’t stop there.  Bernie will undoubtedly push for a sizable increase in the government-controlled social welfare state as well. But where will that expansion end?  Remember, it’s a small step from government-run health care to government-run reeducation camps!

“Sure,” you say.  “But Bernie’s only attacking the 1%. The remaining 99% have nothing to worry about!”  Yes, but who is to say he will stop there?  Pretty soon it will be the 5%, then 10%, and then…. .  You can see how it ends.  Within a few years we will all be toting our little Bernie books, getting Bernie haircuts and gesticulating wildly while we mansplain socialist doctrine to the masses.

Far-fetched?  Perhaps.  But by the time the tanks roll through Middlebury square, and I’m marched off with my fellow political scientists to work the marijuana fields, it’s too late.

Is Trump Hitler?  I have a better question: Is Bernie Mao?!


The Truth About the Orlando Shooting, Based On My Twitter Feed

With news reports indicating that at least 50 people have been killed in a mass shooting at an Orlando night club, making it the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, I turned to social media to find out what we know about this horrific attack.  Who did it, what was his motive and how might we prevent future attacks? Here is what I found out.  All quotes taken directly from my twitter feed.

Who was the shooter, and what was his motive?   

Let’s not rush to judgment until we know more about him.

“Omar Mateen, immediately, is a terrorist. Dylan Roof? Let’s wait for all of the facts to come out, says the media and the authorities.”

Admit it: he was a Muslim terrorist.

“Been watching CBS for 40 minutes. No mention this killer was Muslim who targeted a gay bar. If he was Christian it would be headline news.”


What weapon did he use, and how did he get his hands on it?

Once again, an individual who should not be allowed a gun somehow acquired an assault weapon.

“The gun used in Orlando – AR 15 rifle- is the same gun used at Sandy Hook and San Bernadino. It is a weapon of mass destruction.”

Once again, this shooting demonstrates that it is impossible to predict who should be prevented from owning a gun.

“Omar Mateen was reportedly a security guard and licensed to carry a gun”


What was the gunman’s motive?  

Evidently he was a lone-wolf terrorist motivated by religious hatred:

“Rep. Schiff, who is always cautious, says Dept. of Homeland Security told him Orlando shooter made pledge of allegiance to Islamic State.”

“Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was a ‘known quantity’ to the FBI”

Evidently he was an anti-gay bigot motivated by conservative ideology.

“Shooter was born in America. His anger toward gays is a conservative ideology, opposite of liberalism”

“Orlando Gunman’s Father Says Son Was Upset By Gay Kiss, Not Motivated By Religion”


Would stricter gun control laws have prevented this?

Clearly Yes:

“Pete Williams reports terrorist was on a ‘watch list’ In Dec, GOP blocked bill to stop terrorists from buying guns”

“We can argue about gun control but the fact is that places with reasonable gun control laws simply don’t have mass shootings like this”

Clearly No:

“Paris called. They said you’re an idiot.”

#Orlando shooter passed background check. Next, please.”

“These murders were caused by religion and hate. You can blame the tools all you want but religion is what led to this.”

“50 shootings is a nice peaceful weekend in gun control utopia of Chicago.”

In fact, existing gun control laws exacerbated the carnage:

“Like the killers at the Paris Bataclan concert, the Orlando gunman had 3 hours to work his way through the club, killing at will, B4 being shot.”


How can we prevent future incidents like this from happening?

Not by disarming law-abiding Americans

“We can stop terror attacks on innocent Americans by disarming innocent Americans’ is fun argument. Good luck with that.”

Instead, we must recognize the source of the terror: Radical Islamic Terrorism

“Will only get worse in America, when our POTUS can’t say, or recognize those 3 very words-RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM.”

“First, they came for the French satirists, but I wasn’t a French satirist, and I did not speak out …

Then they came for the gays in the nightclub, but I’m not gay, and I did not speak out …”

#LGBT need to arm themselves from the only people on the planet and our country targeting them: Muslims”

“Sorry gang. Bigotry is not refusing to bake a fucking cake. It’s slaughtering folks in a night club ’cause Allah don’t like it”

Yes: we must recognize the source of the terror: Americans’ love affair with guns and violence combined with bigotry.

“Saying the words ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ (even tweeting them) does not actually combat terrorism.”

“Those who demonize, and promote discrimination against, LGBTs create the ideological / cultural context for the Pulse massacre. #sociology

“Also: you do not have permission from queer Latinxs to use the Pulse shooting for your Islamophobic, ssaremongering war machine. Don’t dare.”


Will it have any impact on the presidential election?

It shows why we should elect Trump:

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump 33m33 minutes ago

Horrific incident in FL. Praying for all the victims & their families. When will this stop? When will we get tough, smart & vigilant?”

 It shows why we should not elect Trump:

“Donald Trump should not be president. But the PC response to the Orlando attack is helping his chances.”


The Pulse shooting.  It is a hate crime, made more likely by lax guns laws and a conservative culture that demonizes the LGBT community.

The Pulse shooting. It is an act of terrorism, fueled by religious hatred fomented by Islamic jihadists.

One thing it apparently is not: an incident that will bring partisan activists together. And that’s the sad truth about the Orlando shooting.

Millennials: Glass Ceiling? What Glass Ceiling?

On a late October night in 2004, I woke my oldest son Seth to watch an historic event: the Boston Red Sox were on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, thus breaking the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino”. (In an uncharacteristic show of mercy, I let my youngest son sleep through history in the making.) At 11:41 p.m., when the Cardinals’ Edgar Renteria tapped meekly back to Sox pitcher Keith Foulke for the final out, I raised a glass of single malt in a toast to all those generations of Sox fans who had lived and died with our Old Towne Team, and yet who never got to experience what I had just witnessed: a World Championship. It was an experience made that much sweeter because I shared it with my son.

Years later I remember asking Seth how he felt on that historic night, when church bells rang throughout small New England towns, grandfathers wept with their sons, and the ghosts of Billy Buckner, Grady Little, Mike Torrez and yes, the Babe himself, were finally and irrevocably exorcised. He paused for a moment and then replied, “I don’t remember. I think I fell asleep.” Upon reflection, I wasn’t surprised by his response. Seth hadn’t really experienced the Red Sox’ long, tortured history, had no idea who Enos Slaughter, Mookie Wilson or Bucky “Bleeping” Dent even were, had no real understanding of why Fenway Park is a religious shrine. (When I brought him to games there, he would bring a science fiction book to read during down time.) And it’s not like this was a once-in-a-lifetime event – the Red Sox have gone on to win two more championships since that historic victory.

I was reminded of Seth’s reaction last night, when my twitter feed was inundated with posts reacting to Hillary Clinton clinching the Democratic nomination, thus becoming the first woman to run as a major party’s nominee. On her twitter feed, Clinton posted this picture, with the caption: “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Great Things Can’t Happen in America.”

It was particularly poignant moment when Clinton, in her victory speech, referenced her own mother, saying, “”I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic Party’s nominee.”

More than one tweeter noted that they were in tears watching this historic moment: “Crying for all the women who never got a chance to see this. #historymade #Imwithher.” And this: “kind of sobbing #historymade”. There were lots of references as well to the shattering of the final glass ceiling: “I’m celebrating by drinking tears of the patriarchy from my glass made of shattered glass ceiling. #HistoryMade”

Many of the tweeters noted that they had woken their young daughters, so that they might watch Clinton’s victory speech and experience the historic event together, much as I had woken my son many years ago.  More than one included this photo in their tweets.

In reading these tweets, I could not help but wonder: Were the young daughters crying too? And how many of them will remember this event? It’s no secret that the biggest dividing line between Clinton’s and Sanders’ supporters – maybe bigger than income, or race – is age. Glass ceiling notwithstanding, Millennials – those born after 1980 – vote overwhelmingly for Bernie, while Clinton does much better with the over-fifty crowd. Surprisingly, perhaps, polls indicate that the age divide extends to women, with Sanders running stronger among young women, while Clinton’s support with a women increases as one moves up the age ladder.

For many Millennial women, the notion that Clinton’s deserves their support because of her gender makes little sense and, in fact, seems somewhat patronizing. Yes, they realize that no women had become a major party nominee, never mind president.  But that had less to do with some metaphorical glass ceiling than it did with the failure to find an effective woman candidate. And when they look at the two Democratic candidates, and their stances on issues like income inequality, dealing with Wall St., the environment, health care and education, they find it hard to make a case for Clinton over Sanders. As one of my female students explained in an op-ed piece she wrote justifying her vote for Bernie, “Voting for Hillary, at least for me, would have meant that I was content with the pragmatic, incremental changes that she’s proposed, and that I was skeptical of Bernie’s ability to beat a Republican nominee – and maybe even his ability to run the country.” A vote for Bernie, “the Democratic socialist from Vermont,” she argued, “essentially means that you think the current political system (largely controlled by wealthy individuals and corporate interests) isn’t working. You reject the consumerism, me-first way of life of our parents’ generation and envision a more sustainable, more caring and more economically just America.”

That is a sentiment widely shared among my students, men and women, and among Millennials more generally. This doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy, or that they believe gender discrimination is no longer a problem in society. But they grew up in the era of Title IX, at a time when more women than men are graduating from college, and when the gender pay gap is diminishing. To them, their gender seems less likely to determine their fate than it did for Clinton’s generation, and there is little reason to believe it will determine how one behaves as President.

Perhaps more importantly, Hillary Clinton does not strike many Millennials as the ideal symbol of gender equality. Instead, she seems to be the product of a political establishment that they reject as corrupt and incapable of change. Clinton’s long history of association with scandals, from Whitewater through Lewinsky and her husband’s impeachment (and they don’t forget she stood by her man) to the current email server controversy, makes her less a symbol of change than a reminder of politics as usual. And more than one student has noted to me that Clinton got her initial political start as the spouse of the President – hardly the Millennial’s feminist ideal. Unfair? Perhaps. But in a head-to-head matchup, many Millennials prefer what they see as Sanders’ more genuine, idealistic and uplifting message over Clinton’s establishment persona.

In making his case last night to his followers for why he will stay in the race, Sanders noted his overwhelming support among young voters – a sign, he says, that his message represents the future of the Democratic Party, and of politics more generally. Time will tell if he’s right.  In the years to come, the young daughters who were dragged out of bed last night to stand next to Mom and Grandma, may look back and wonder what all the fuss was about – if they remember at all.  I suppose that would be progress, of a sort.  In that vein, my son Seth never developed much passion for baseball, to say nothing of a rooting allegiance for the Red Sox. “The games are too slow,” he tells me. On the other hand, he just published his first science fiction novel, to rave reviews.

I guess I can live with that.