You’d think folks in Washington would know this lesson well: It’s better to get ahead of an unpleasant truth than be caught trying to hide from it. This is especially true if you’re the president in an election year with an opposition poised to pounce on anything that might embarrass your administration.
So it has been with the attacks last month that killed four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Libya. We know now that the incident was the product of terrorism, not spontaneous violence or demonstrations against an ugly, anti-Muslim U.S. film. It’s taken the Obama administration far too long to acknowledge that, however, and its treatment of these tragic attacks has been at best clumsy and likely the result of political considerations.
The result: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings Wednesday to take shots at the administration’s response to the attacks and question the adequacy of security provided to diplomats in that Middle Eastern hotspot. The latter is legitimate for investigators and Americans to ask. The former is something the administration should have avoided.
To recap: Shortly after the Benghazi attacks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously called them what they were – an “attack” by “heavily armed militants.” But four days later, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice described the attacks as a “spontaneous reaction” that came “as a consequence of the video.” That was wrong, but the administration didn’t disavow it, and President Obama continued to focus on the anti-Muslim video while campaigning even after it was clear that the video had little relevance to the attacks.
This week, a State Department official told reporters that it never concluded the attacks stemmed from protests, the Associated Press reported. That means Obama either didn’t talk to the State Department about its analysis – which is unlikely – or made an unfortunate political calculation to allow Rice’s alternate, unsupported version of events.
Clearly, the attack posed a political challenge to Obama, who was on the campaign trail touting his dismantling of al-Qaida. Perhaps some in the administration or campaign wanted to avoid questions about security lapses or intelligence failures leading up to the attacks.
But in trying to maybe save themselves from losing a news cycle or two, they opened the door for Republicans to argue the Libya attacks reveal a failed Obama policy in the Middle East. Certainly, attacks on American interests show the difficulties the U.S. faces in the region, as presidents from Reagan to Clinton to Bush understood well. But Obama has made strides in the Middle East, as the horrified reaction of Libyan citizens to the attacks showed.
Security questions, however, need to be answered. Were diplomats too lightly protected in a country the State Department had warned was highly dangerous?
Obama, who surely knew such concerns would follow the attacks, should have promised early on to identify and fix any deficiencies so a future tragedy could be avoided. Instead, those questions were being gleefully asked Wednesday by an oversight committee led by House Republicans. It’s an uncomfortable reality for Obama, but no more so than the fact that three weeks before the election, Americans have a visible reason to wonder what their administration will choose when politics and truth collide.