Consider two assertions:
1.) Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration must be held accountable for the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, at our consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. Yes, Stevens and his colleagues knew they were operating in a war zone and taking significant risks, but security at our Benghazi facility was nonetheless lax and those responsible should be punished.
2.) On the other hand, then-President George W. Bush and his administration bear no responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11 that killed 3,000 Americans here on American soil. Yes, Bush himself was given a CIA briefing more than a month prior titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In U.S.,” which also included reports that Osama bin Laden was interested in hijacking U.S. aircraft; yes, the U.S. government already had other scattered clues which in hindsight pointed to the plot’s existence.* Nonetheless, attempting to blame the Bush administration for failing to assemble those clues and halt the attacks would be grossly unfair and divisive.
In an interview over the weekend, Jeb Bush was challenged to reconcile those two assertions. It did not go well:
Personally, I have never questioned the wisdom of that second assertion. Is it possible that the Bush administration could have prevented 9/11, given the scattered but important clues then available? At most, we can say “maybe”. Had an all-out, government-wide alert been issued after the CIA briefing, maybe those dots could have been connected and maybe the plot could have been exposed. We’ll never know for sure because no such alert was issued.
But to borrow a phrase, “what difference does it make?” It wouldn’t bring back our 3,000 dead. It wouldn’t help in moving forward against our enemies. It might be useful as a partisan weapon to wield against the other party, but as a nation we had more important challenges to pursue at the time. The point is that we as Americans were attacked, and we as Americans had to respond.
The real question is why that same attitude is so conspicuously absent among Republicans when the topic turns to Benghazi. In the interview above, for example, Bush runs through the GOP list of alleged “open issues” regarding Benghazi, including whether the Obama administration reacted aggressively enough in trying military options to rescue our personnel.
“That’s what the investigation is about,” Bush said. “It’s not a political issue.”
And that is a bald-faced lie. At this point, it is nothing but a blatantly political issue, as even a couple of Republicans have now acknowledged. Again, in the three years since the Benghazi attack, we have had seven major investigations into what happened there** — the ongoing Gowdy committee probe is the eighth. Most of the previous seven investigations have been led by Republicans. Every single investigation has concluded beyond a doubt that the Obama administration aggressively pursued every possible military option to help our people in Benghazi, but none was available in the short time frame involved.
And Bush still tries to suggest otherwise.
Here’s the difficult truth:
The norms of basic decency and patriotism that appropriately prevented Sept. 11 from becoming a partisan issue have been ignored by GOP leadership regarding Benghazi. They have taken a tragedy in which Americans were attacked overseas by our enemies and they have used it in a protracted, cynical effort to divide us here at home.
In the end, that will prove to be the true and enduring scandal in this affair.
*For a thorough and chilling account of those clues, see Chapter Eight of the National 9/11 Commission’s final report, titled “The System Was Blinking Red.”
** The State Department inspector general, the House Intelligence Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, the House Oversight Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.