Word Games About War

The Obama Administration has an amazing, almost uncanny ability to stub its toe on the most ludicrous things imaginable.  The latest weird distraction involves whether our campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a “war.”

Secretary of State John Kerry took pains, in two separate interviews, to say that “war is not the right terminology” to describe the U.S. actions against ISIS, which instead will be a “major counterterrorism operation.”  National Security Advisor Susan Rice similarly resisted describing the operation as a “war.”  The next day, however, a Pentagon spokesman and the White House Press Secretary both described the ISIS campaign as a “war.”

I’m guessing that what happened is this:  some political operative issued “talking points” that strongly discouraged using the word “war” because they don’t want Americans to think they’re going to see a repeat of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.  But if you say you are going to destroy an an armed opponent, as President Obama said of ISIS in his speech this week, what you are talking about obviously is a war.  Quibbling about words makes the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor look like political flacks rather than the thoughtful, above-the-fray stewards of American foreign policy.

This is another instance, too, where the words can have real-world consequences.  America is trying to build a coalition of countries to fight ISIS.  If you are the leader of one of those countries that is considering joining the coalition, and you are trying to decide whether you can trust the United States, what message about long-term American commitment do you draw from the silly wrangling about whether the U.S. actions are a “war” or a “major counterterrorism operation”?  If you’re trying to decide whether to deploy your scarce military and economic resources, and potentially make your country a target of a brutal group of Islamic terrorists, do you want to rely on an ally that is inexplicably pussyfooting around about whether it is fighting a “war”?

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A Spin Too Far

A recently released email indicates that a White House official was actively involved in shaping the Obama Administration’s depiction of the cause of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — an attack that killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the Ambassador to Libya.  The release of the email was compelled by a court after having been withheld by the Obama Administration for more than a year before being released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The email is from Ben Rhodes, an assistant to President Obama and the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.  It addresses the preparation of Susan Rice, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, for her appearance on Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the Benghazi attack and describes “goals” to be achieved.  One goal was to “underscore these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”  Another goal was to “reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”  The email also says that “the currently available information is that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired” rather than being a planned attack.

The Washington Post website says the email “clearly showed a White House top priority was to shield Obama from criticism less than two months before voters decided whether to give him a second term.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the email was not produced previously because it was not directly about the Benghazi attack but rather attempted to more broadly address Obama Administration policy and views about protests throughout the Middle East.

I try not to be naive about modern politics, where the immediate reaction to every bit of bad news is to try to develop a way to “spin” the news to better advantage.  Everyday Americans just need to understand that, for both parties, “spin” rules the day.  Even so, the newly released email is troubling.  Shouldn’t spin end at the water’s edge?  When we are talking about an attack that killed a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans, isn’t the proper approach to wait until the facts are known, rather than actively shaping the comments of officials toward a story line that the White House thinks would better serve a President who is in the midst of a reelection campaign?

Trying To Get To The Bottom Of Benghazi

Congressional hearings are underway into the storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  The hearings are interesting — both for what they are telling us about what happened in Libya and within the U.S. government itself as the attacks unfolded, but also for what they are telling us about the twisted, hyper-partisan world of Washington, D.C.

During yesterday’s testimony, which the New York Times described as “riveting,” a veteran U.S. diplomat named Gregory Hicks gave a detailed account of the night of the attack.  Hicks, a 22-year Foreign Service veteran, became the head State Department official in Libya after Ambassador Stevens was killed.  He testified about how a Special Operations team wanted to fly to Benghazi to help but was overruled by officials in Washington, who concluded it could not arrive in time to help.  Hicks also described being “stunned” and “embarrassed” when Administration officials, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, initially portrayed the attack as a response to a YouTube video and how such comments angered the president of the Libyan National Assembly, who had called the attack a preplanned terrorist act.  Hicks testified that the Libyan government’s feeling of being undercut may have delayed their cooperation with Americans investigating the incident.  Furthermore, he said that when he raised questions about Rice’s comments, he was effectively demoted and led to understand that he should stop asking questions.

The testimony of Hicks and two other officials, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, indicate that there is still information to be uncovered and lessons to be learned about Benghazi.  When four Americans, including an ambassador, are killed, their deaths deserve a detailed inquiry and a careful evaluation, at the congressional level.  Such an evaluation should determine whether changes in law, security arrangements, staffing, or emergency response procedures are needed to prevent such an incident from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, in our modern government, things are never quite that simple.  The Times story linked above reflects that unfortunate fact, because much of the article is devoted to the “politics” of what should ideally be an apolitical, objective fact-finding exercise.  It’s ludicrous, and disheartening, and it is happening on both sides of the aisle.  Republicans should stop portraying every incident as “another Watergate”; it just allows their opponents to dismiss hearings such as yesterday’s as a politically motivated witch hunt.  And Democrats should stop trying to downplay the significance of Benghazi and resist every inquiry about why four Americans died.  That much, at least, is owed to the memories of those four Americans — and to the many other Americans who serve their country in diplomatic posts in dangerous parts of the world.

Mr. President, Please Don’t Shoot Yourself In The Foot!

Can President Obama actually be considering nominating Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State?  Some are reporting that Rice is his choice, and at a press conference yesterday he forcefully defended her against criticism by John McCain and other Senators. The President said Rice has done “exemplary” work at the UN and that if he decides she would be the best choice, he will go ahead and nominate her.

It seems inconceivable that Rice would be on the President’s short list for the most visible position in the Cabinet.  For many Americans, she is the face and voice of what they consider to be an unconscionable attempt to mislead and cover up the truth about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  When Rice went on the Sunday talk shows and attempted to blame the Benghazi attacks on a YouTube video, she was presenting a false narrative that, increasingly, has been shown to be at odds with the facts known to many in the Administration — that the Benghazi incident was a planned and carefully executed terrorist attack, not a a spontaneous mob reaction to an incendiary video.  As a result, many angry Americans view Rice as either a know-nothing shill who was out of the loop but faithfully presented the phony talking points given to her or a knowing participant in an effort to deceive the American people.  Either way, she has little credibility with them.

If the President nominates Rice, he will be guaranteeing a bruising confirmation fight and extended hearings into what Rice and others knew about the attack.  Why run that risk?  Rice may be capable — although I’m not sure what has been “exemplary” about her service at the UN — but there undoubtedly are hundreds of people who also could capably serve as Secretary of State.  Can’t the President pick someone who won’t serve as a lightning rod for criticism about an ugly, poorly handled foreign policy disaster that involved the death of four Americans?

I cringed when I read the President’s statement that “[i]f Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”  We don’t need silly macho posturing right now.  When the President won re-election, people wondered whether he would be more of a compromiser in his second term, or whether — freed from the need to ever again stand for election — he would demand that things be done his way, no matter what the opposition.  If the President insists on nominating Rice, he will be indicating that he is following the latter course, which in turn will just harden the opposition and make compromises less likely.  If the President shoots himself in the foot by sending Rice’s name to the Senate, we may be in for more long years of bickering, gridlock, and inability to tackle our debt, deficit, and entitlement problems.  We can’t afford that possibility — and the President can’t either.

The Walls Around Benghazi, Starting To Crumble

Every day, new revelations come out about what happened at the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11.  Each revelation makes the incident more troubling and paints the Obama Administration is an increasingly disturbing light.

We now know that, in the months before the September 11 attack, there were multiple warnings and incidents, at the consulate itself and elsewhere in Benghazi, that made it clear that the area was dangerous and that consulate lacked sufficient security.  Why didn’t our government take steps to either significantly beef up security at the compound or remove our Ambassador and the consulate staff from the unsecure area?  Given the turmoil in Libya, protecting the security of Americans serving there should have been a high priority, but it obviously wasn’t.  The failure to act in response to repeated warnings and prior terrorist activity is astonishingly irresponsible.  Why hasn’t anyone in our government been held responsible for the failure to protect our people against a painfully obvious threat?

In addition, the information that has been dribbling out about the incident makes the initial “spontaneous mob” explanation offered by the Obama Administration especially inexplicable.  The people involved in the incident itself — from the State Department people who were following the incident in real time, to the people who received the frantic phone calls and messages from consulate personnel, to the military personnel and intelligence operatives who apparently tried to respond — understood that the incident was a planned and coordinated terrorist attack, not a reaction to a YouTube video about Mohammed.  Indeed, there was no apparent factual basis for believing the attack was an angry response to an obscure video.  So why did the YouTube video ever get blamed for the incident?  Who pushed the YouTube video story, instead of telling us the truth?

Today Kish and I watched Meet the Press, and we shook our heads when the Obama Administration spokesman tried to reassure us that the investigation of the incident is proceeding.  Really?  It’s been two months since four Americans were murdered, apparently needlessly.  Does it really take so long to figure out why warnings weren’t heeded, and who made the decision to ignore them?  And how can it possibly take two months to determine who came up with the phony YouTube video explanation for the carnage?  If our government can’t move more nimbly than this, what does it tell you about the capabilities of our government?

I hate to think that, with the election now only two days away, the Obama Administration is stonewalling and trying to run out the clock on a terrible failure that produced four dead Americans.  However, I’ve heard no other reasonable explanation for the fact that the Administration has not moved aggressively and quickly to figure out what happened, tell the American people the truth, and take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  Is there another explanation?