Paul Pillar

More Costs of a Pseudo-Scandal

If I were a political adviser to those relentlessly pushing recriminations about the attack last year on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, I think my advice would be, “Give it a rest.” This pseudo-scandal has become so forced, so contrived, and so blatantly driven by motives other than safeguarding the security of U.S. interests that the unending push has already passed the point where it serves any identifiable objectives, even partisan political ones. The subject, about which a panel of inquiry has completed its work and issued its report, is already tiresome; imagine how much more tiresome it will be to voters by 2016 after three more years of it.

A poll on Benghazi released this week by Public Policy Polling suggests that the agitation on the subject is keeping a Republican base agitated but not making wider inroads on public opinion. One has to ask what good it does Republicans to dwell on something that keeps one segment of the population angry about Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) when that segment was already angry about Obama anyway. When asked whom the respondent trusted more on the issue of Benghazi, 49 percent said Hillary Clinton and 39 percent said Congressional Republicans. On other questions asking for an overall favorable or unfavorable rating, Clinton enjoys an eight-point margin over Congressional Republicans, the same margin as in a similar poll in March.

The poll did show that the angry base has gotten the intended message that there is supposedly a scandal involved. A plurality of Republicans (but only small percentages of either Democrats or independents) said yes to the question of whether this was the “biggest scandal in American history.” By margins of greater than three to one, Republicans polled said it was a worse scandal than Watergate, Iran Contra, or Teapot Dome. That's an interesting result given that in one case the issue involved nuances conveyed in some talking points, while each of the others involved criminal behavior in the form of attempted subversion of an American election with a subsequent cover-up, illegal diversion of arms into a foreign war, or bribery of a cabinet officer to get preferred exploitation of publicly owned natural resources.

The customary ignorance of the American public is no doubt at play. Probably the proportion of the general population that could say today what Teapot Dome was about measures in the single digits. A scandal seems worse if you've actually heard about it. The ignorance factor was suggested by another question in the poll asking where Benghazi is. Ten percent believe it is in Egypt, nine percent in Iran, six percent in Cuba, five percent in Syria, four percent in Iraq, and one percent each in North Korea and Liberia, with another four percent being unwilling to guess. Maybe those who said Cuba have Benghazi confused with Guantanamo. It would be interesting to know what those who said North Korea think the incident was about.

Probably the failure of the agitation about Benghazi to make wider inroads on public opinion is due not only to the tiresome, contrived and partisan nature of the agitation but also to the fact that it never had a logic in the first place. The message being promoted seems to be that the administration was shying away from describing the incident as terrorism in order not to undermine, during the 2012 election campaign, a claim to having success against international terrorists. But when did Barack Obama ever contend that international terrorism has been licked? When the presidential candidates were asked in one of the debates—several months after Osama bin Laden had been killed—what each believed to be biggest national security threat facing the country, Obama replied, “terrorism.” However the incident in Benghazi is characterized, four Americans were killed. There is no way to sugar-coat that, whether the T-word is used or not.

The endless harping about Benghazi has costs beyond, and more important than, wasted time by Republicans who have better ways to try to win votes and defeat Hillary Clinton. Among those costs are the fostering of misunderstanding of some fundamental realities about such incidents and about terrorism. Shortly after the Benghazi attack I mentioned some of those realities, including the inherent hazards of overseas representation and the inability to protect every installation everywhere, and the fact that the details of such incidents are nearly always obscure initially and become clear only in hindsight. As the harping continued other costs grew. These included promoting yet another misunderstanding about terrorism: the idea that popular anger at the United States and the machinations of a group are somehow mutually exclusive explanations for any terrorist incident. Still another is the notion that nonstate violence is worth worrying about if it can be linked to al-Qaeda but is not much of a threat if it cannot. There also is the cost of inducing future secretaries of state and other officials to impair U.S. diplomacy by futilely pursuing a zero-risk approach to overseas representation.