On Benghazi and Straw Men

So, Benghazi is back in the news, and this time it seems to be serious.

There have been new revelations regarding the now-infamous “talking points” that the president’s staff formulated for administration officials to use when discussing the attack, which some pundits have called the “smoking gun.” And the more we learn about this story, the more it seems that there really is something there.

But first, in the interests of clarity, it is worthwhile to clarify what exactly the scandal is. After all, part of the reason the president has thus far been able to sidestep any real fallout is his exploitation of the ignorance of most Americans on this subject.

As he does with many of his opponents’ positions, the president would rather attack straw men than actually deal with substance. It is what leads him to make statements such as characterizing opposition to Obamacare as “…the one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care.” Of course that is untrue. But it makes it easier to maintain an untenable position (which many of the president’s positions really are) when you don’t have to defend it.

On foreign policy as well, the president employs this tactic. In a late-April press conference, Mr. Obama was asked by Ed Henry how he would define his policy for critics who thought it could be characterized as “weariness.”

His response was, “Frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.”

Obviously, those advocating for a stronger posture on the world stage aren’t making an argument to invade Russia. But the president can deflect attention from his failures in dealing with Vladimir Putin by saying his critics are unreasonable because they want something that is more indefensible than what he wants — even though they never staked out that position.

Which brings us back to Benghazi.

Every time there is a new development regarding this story, the left keeps bringing it back to a claim made last year, and dismissing that claim as if it were central to the scandal. That claim is that there was a “stand down” order given to the troops who were going to rescue the Americans in Benghazi. The truth is that there was an order given — and that was part of the reason there is some misconception about this even until today. But the order was for the troops in Tripoli to remain where they were in order to better protect the assets that were stationed there.

It is true that some on the right still make this claim, but they are a minority. The House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican, said, “We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources DoD [Department of Defense] had available to respond.”

But the Administration’s allies keep responding to this claim — precisely because it is not the real scandal, and it is easy to disprove.

The real scandal surrounds incompetence and the cover-up surrounding that incompetence in the run-up to a presidential election.

The president made a very big deal in the 2012 election out of the fact that he gave the order that killed Osama bin Laden. He also was quite busy reminding us that “al-Qaida is on the run.” The coordinated and sophisticated attack on the CIA annex in Benghazi flew in the face of one of his stated accomplishments.

But as is always the case, it’s the cover-up that is worse than the “crime.” An email that was being withheld by the White House was released last week upon a court order. In that email, the formation of the talking points by advisor Ben Rhodes said that then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in a … video and not a broader failure of policy.” And continuing up and even past the president’s speech to the U.N., many different officials continued to blame the attack on “spontaneous protests” directed at the video — and would not call it an al-Qaida attack.

That, not anything else, is the scandal. The fact is that a concerted effort was made to mislead the American public as to the cause of the attack, and it was done for the president’s political benefit.

The administration is only now being pressed on this because the email has only now surfaced.

The most comically disturbing part is how the different members of the White House staff react to questions about it. When ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jon Karl confronted Press Secretary Jay Carney, he refused to address the substance of his questions, leading to an eight-minute back-and-forth about why Karl wasn’t asking a valid question. When advisor Tommy Vietor was asked about it by Fox News Channel anchor Brett Baier, he responded dismissively, “Dude, this was two years ago. We’re still talking about the most mundane thing.” And senior advisor David Plouffe, on ABC’s This Week, said, “There’s a loud delusional minority that’s driving our politics … there’s no conspiracy at all.”

And so now we have a select committee to investigate Benghazi. Trey Gowdy, the Republican who in all likelihood will chair that committee, says that he already has “evidence that there was a systematic, intentional decision to withhold certain documents from Congress.”

The White House can downplay it and act like there’s nothing there, but as soon as the subpoenas start rolling we will finally find out what exactly was going on when the decision was made to deliberately mislead the American people.