While the full picture of how it happened may never be completely known, it deserves better than to be treated as a political football.
In 2012, Libya was emerging from decades of rule by a totalitarian, Moammar Gadhafi. Thanks to the Arab Spring, Libya was among those north African nations wrestling over its next chapter.
The Obama administration, which had navigated tricky diplomatic waters in freeing Libya from Gadhafi, was doing a similarly complicated dance during the aftermath of his reign. The goal was to steer Libyans toward a modern democracy while leaving a very small footprint.
All the while, Libyan Islamist forces opposed to the United States and the rest of the West wouldn’t go quietly into the night.
In the late summer of 2012, Libya remained a dangerous place, especially for Americans.
The 2012 attacks in Benghazi confirmed the worst of U.S. fears. Crowds attacked two U.S. State Department installations there. By the morning of Sept. 12, Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, Sean Smith, a State Department information officer, and two Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were dead.
Almost immediately, the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney latched onto the story as evidence of the weakness of President Barack Obama. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” a Romney campaign press release noted in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
The Romney campaign was soon joined by other Republicans, who pounded the issue in the belief that they had found a vulnerable spot in Obama’s re-election bid.
In the first year of Obama’s second term, the pounding continued. Congressional Republicans held countless hearings, promoting theories that pin the blame for the Benghazi attacks on senior Obama officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Obama.
For too many Republican politicians, Benghazi is a political angle to play, a handy way to bludgeon the president.
The most recent case in point came last weekend when The New York Times published an account of the events leading to the 2012 attack. Along the way, cold water was poured on two Republican talking points. The first is that the administration failed to pinpoint al-Qaida as the force behind the attacks. The Times’ reporting finds a more spontaneous attack with various militias as well as elements from the street rising up against the U.S. compounds. Al-Qaida did not play a significant role, Times reporters found.
The second damaged talking point deals with the motivation for the attack. The administration initially claimed an anti-Muslim online video had stirred a crowd to attack the consulate. Republicans have steadfastly rejected that claim and said it was being made so that the Obama administration could hide its incompetence in failing to thwart an al-Qaida plot. Times reporters found that a video had indeed been a motivating factor in stirring up anger on Benghazi’s streets.
And the Republican response to the article? Besides disputing the reporting, several prominent Republican politicians said the real reason The New York Times published the article was to smooth the way for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run for president.
As we said, too many Republicans are treating this tragedy as a political football.