Why are conservatives so obsessed with Benghazi? The conventional view is that they see it as a great weapon against Hillary Clinton, and that’s certainly true. Seven bipartisan inquiries, including one by the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee, have together debunked every single accusation that there was some kind of scandal associated with the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US staff members in Libya in 2012 — for instance, that the administration issued a “stand down” order that kept US military from sending in a rescue team. Yet an eighth investigation, by the Select Committee on Benghazi, grinds on.
In June, the committee spent a day grilling the journalist and former Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. The purported subject of the hearing was a series of emails about Benghazi that Blumenthal sent to Hillary Clinton, a personal friend, when she was secretary of state. The committee session quickly devolved into a political fishing expedition, with Republicans posing more than 160 questions about Blumenthal’s relationship and communications with the Clintons, more than fifty about the Clinton Foundation, and only four about security in Benghazi. The committee looks also to be the source behind The New York Times’ catastrophically inaccurate front-page story in July alleging a criminal referral to the Department of Justice about Clinton and her emails. The committee’s leader, Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, has said that the committee’s report won’t be completed until (surprise, surprise) 2016, in the middle of the presidential race. In the rich history of Washington scandal mongering, we have seen few investigations more cynical and nihilistic than this one.
Still, I don’t think naked political expediency sufficiently explains the bottomless well of outrage that Benghazi has stirred up among base Republican voters. To understand that, I think you have to go back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Those who lived through that era can recall not just the nail-biting drama of those 444 days but also the sense of national effrontery — Ted Koppel’s famous nightly ABC News show about the crisis was tellingly entitled America Held Hostage.
The hostage crisis had three lasting effects. First, because it happened on Jimmy Carter’s watch, in the midst of a presidential race, and ended at the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, the crisis validated Republicans’ inner sense that they and only they could be trusted to protect America’s security. Second, the crisis turned the general subject of the safety of US diplomats into a political and ideological issue in a way it never had been. In the eleven years prior to the hostage crisis, five US ambassadors were murdered by militants and terrorists in places like Lebanon, Guatemala, and the Sudan. None of those losses, which occurred under presidents of both parties, was seen by the public or in Washington as a grievous insult to America generally, or through a partisan filter, or as evidence of systematic failure by the US government requiring root-to-branch investigations with presumptions of perfidy at the top. Rather, they were treated the same way Chris Stevens’s murder (the first of a US ambassador since 1979) should be seen: as brave diplomats killed in the line of duty.
The third effect of the hostage crisis was to make politicians and the State Department so paranoid about security that they turned US embassies into fortresses and put tight restrictions on the movement of staff. This has certainly saved American lives. But it’s also made it much harder for our diplomats to do their jobs — a point that the foreign correspondent and former Washington Monthly editor Robert Worth made in The New York Times Magazine in 2012. As a foreign correspondent myself in the mid-1990s I remember senior US foreign service officers expressing envy at my ability to travel to wherever the action was and interview people — an absolutely vital way of learning what’s happening on the ground that they could no longer do without heavy security, or, in many cases, at all. A reporter friend of mine in Sarajevo in 1995 who later served as a USAID officer in Pakistan used to complain to me that he felt like a prisoner in the embassy in Islamabad, unable, really, to do his job effectively.
Ambassadors make the calls on diplomatic security matters in their domains, so they have more leeway to decide where, when, and how they travel. But the pressure on them from their staffs and Washington not to take chances is intense.
Chris Stevens famously pushed back against that pressure in 2011 when, as US envoy to Libya, he was the US government’s main interlocutor to the rebels who ultimately overthrew Moammar Ghadhafi. Stevens, who spoke the Libyan dialect of Arabic, lived openly in Benghazi with minimal security. His actions during that period became legendary among US diplomats. It was an act of patriotic bravery, repeated a year later when, as ambassador, he returned to Benghazi, knowing as well as anyone the poor security situation there. We need more Chris Stevenses in our diplomatic corps. The Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to make sure we have fewer, even if that isn’t their intention.
The Scandalization of Bravery…