REPUBLICAN senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham devoted an appearance at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday to vowing to filibuster if Susan Rice, the current UN ambassador, is nominated to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. They’re apparently ticked off over her statements on talk shows on September 15th about the Benghazi attacks. Barack Obama got pretty incensed about this at his press conference later in the day, and Kevin Drum argues he was right to be incensed. As Mr Drum says, everything Ms Rice said on September 15th was in fact the judgment at that moment of American intelligence agencies, and she relayed that judgment accurately. The only thing that was even arguably wrong in those intelligence assessments was the claim that there had been a copycat protest over those anti-Muslim YouTube videos in Benghazi; intelligence agencies didn’t start calling this into question until some time later. “Berating Rice, who had nothing to do with Benghazi aside from representing the administration on these talk shows, is nuts,” Mr Drum writes. “The intelligence community was wrong about one relatively unimportant fact, and Rice passed along that mistake. That’s it. There’s no coverup, no conspiracy, no incompetence, no scandal.”
This is absolutely right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. At the most fundamental level, the reason it is absurd to suspect the existence of a “cover-up” over the Benghazi attack is that such a cover-up could not have had any conceivable goal. Back to the beginning: the underlying accusation about Benghazi is that the Obama administration deliberately mischaracterised the terrorist attack there as having grown out of a spontaneous demonstration because that would be less politically damaging. Such a cover-up would have made no sense because the attack would not have been less politically damaging had it grown out of a spontaneous demonstration. The attack on the Benghazi compound would not have been any less politically difficult for the administration if it had grown out of a riot, nor would any normal voter have expected it to be less politically damaging, nor would any normal campaign strategist have expected any normal voter to have expected it to be less politically damaging. Had Susan Rice gone on the talk shows on September 15th and inaccurately stated that the attackers had been wearing green pants, when in fact their pants had been red, there would be no reason to suspect this to be part of a political “cover-up”, because no American voters could conceivably have cared either way.
Look, back in 2009 when I was based in Hanoi I spent an hour or so at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (formerly the POW camp known as the Hanoi Hilton) trailing John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Amy Klobuchar, who were on an official visit. At some point Mr Graham made a joke about his experiences farming chickens, at which Mr McCain did not laugh. If I separately asked each of them about that incident I have no doubt there would be differences in their recollections, and then I could run around accusing Mr Graham or Mr McCain of trying to engage in a political cover-up of the chicken-farming joke incident at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. The correct way to assess the validity of such an accusation would not be to start investigating who knew what about the chicken-farming joke, and when did they know it. The correct response would be to dismiss it out of hand, because nobody cares whether or not Lindsey Graham made a joke about chicken farming at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, so nobody would cover it up. The Obama administration could not rationally have believed it would have derived any benefit from inaccurately claiming the attack on the Benghazi consulate grew out of a demonstration; why on earth would they engage in a cover-up of something that makes no difference?
Obviously there’s a huge temptation to turn any incident that could reflect badly on the opposition’s government, such as the killing of an ambassador in a terrorist attack, into some kind of scandal. But this attempt is just absurd. The strategy here has been to shout “Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi!” until the public begins to think there’s something fishy going on with Benghazi, and then move on to targeting administration figures because…Benghazi! If this actually works, we are all still in kindergarten.
By Susan Rice, The Economist