There is something vaguely absurd about the tenacity with which Republican partisans are trying to turn the September 11 attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya into a symbol of Obama Administration incompetence. Clearly mistakes were made, but U.S. diplomatic personnel serving in unstable countries are always at risk, and the consequences of losing four Americans to a terrorist attack are not great in a world where far larger numbers of people fall victim to extremist violence on a daily basis. Every death is a tragedy for those who have lost a son or daughter, but that’s part of the reason U.S. personnel were on the ground in Libya in the first place — to reduce the chances of further violence.
What’s absurd about the domestic political opera playing out over Benghazi in this election season is the utter lack of humility from a party that gave us the most incompetent management of national security in living memory during the first eight years of the new millennium. Remember what it was like when Republicans claimed the White House in 2001? America was at peace with the world and the Pentagon was planning for a “strategic pause” that might last decades. Things were so peaceful that presidential candidate George W. Bush had proposed skipping a generation of weapons on the campaign trail.
Here’s what the Republicans did with that very unusual and promising moment in America’s history. Less than a year after winning the election, Bush presided over the biggest terrorist attack ever on the U.S. homeland mainly because he and his advisors weren’t paying attention; defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld later told the 9-11 commission that the subject of terrorism hadn’t come up during his first eight months in office, and the chairman of the joint chiefs said he had received no taskings on the subject.
Two years after that, the Bush Administration invaded Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence and its own misguided biases, condemning the nation to a second war in Southwest Asia for no good reason. Senior officials said it would be a cakewalk, but two years later America’s military was on the verge of losing the war to a collection of rag-tag insurgents equipped with little more than cell phones and improvised explosive devices. Let’s not even get into the subject of how the Bush Administration dealt with a different kind of homeland threat called Hurricane Katrina the same year.
When a political party has delivered this kind of leadership to America during its most recent run in the White House, the idea that it has any useful lessons to teach its successors about national security is laughable. If you listen to the Republican presidential candidate this time around, it sounds like he is falling for the same geopolitical logic that got us into the Iraq war under Bush. Back then we had a moral imperative to stop Iraq from getting nuclear weapons; now we have the same imperative to go after Iran. This seems like a party with a very shallow learning curve — in fact, maybe some sort of learning disability. Anybody with a memory should be incredulous that Republicans are trying to turn the Benghazi tragedy into a campaign issue, only a few years after their party presided over the worst intelligence failures and military mismanagement in modern times.