Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is taking full responsibility for the security failure last month at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, saying President Obama would not have been involved in decisions on a particular diplomatic mission’s security detail.
Stating in a Monday evening interview with CNN that she wanted to avoid a “political gotcha” over the Benghazi tragedy, Secretary Clinton appeared to be trying to shield her boss, a president locked in a tight reelection battle, from further political fallout. The Sept. 11 terrorist attack killed four US diplomats, including the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
But Clinton’s efforts did nothing to blunt an intense Republican offensive against Mr. Obama over the handling of the Benghazi attack, with questions ranging from why the consulate was not better prepared for such an assault to why it took so long for the administration to acknowledge a terrorist attack.
With Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, expected to cite the Benghazi attack in Tuesday night’s debate in an attempt to paint a picture of failed presidential leadership, some political experts say Clinton may have even unwittingly served Mr. Romney’s purposes.
“It was important for [Clinton] to state this publicly, to say what we all knew – that she as secretary is responsible,” says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “But you also have to be careful with a statement like this, because it can raise other questions about what your boss, in this case the president of the United States, needs to know.”
Clinton used a raft of television interviews Monday night, while she was away from Washington on a diplomatic mission to Peru, to address for the first time the questions swirling around the Benghazi attack. She insisted that public statements made by State Department officials – including comments by the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, five days after the attack – reflected the information available when the statements were made.
But Clinton also batted down any suggestion that the White House is trying to use her to do damage control for Obama. “Look, I take responsibility. I’m in charge of the State Department, 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts,” she told CNN.
“The president and the vice president certainly wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals,” she added. “They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.”
That argument did not persuade Republican critics, who quickly seized on Clinton’s statements to double down on their attacks on Obama – perhaps offering a preview of the line of attack that Romney might take Tuesday night.
Three Republican senators, including Obama’s 2008 rival, John McCain, called Clinton’s action “a laudable gesture, especially when the White House is trying to avoid any responsibility whatsoever.” But Senator McCain of Arizona and two colleagues, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire went on, “The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the commander in chief. The buck stops there.”
There is no way, says Mr. Korb, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration, that Republicans would accept Clinton’s call three weeks before the election to approach the Benghazi tragedy as “Americans together” and to allow the investigation to clarify what happened.
“They haven’t had a good national security issue until now. Obama getting bin Laden and all those other heads of Al Qaeda supported the narrative that the Democrats were strong on national security,” he says. “Now they have something that, looking at the White House, wasn’t handled well.”
But Obama, as commander in chief, has his own assets to call on in the face of the Republican assault, Korb says. The president should come off as knowledgeable, he says, explaining that the US Marines at the embassy in Tripoli were not there to travel around with the ambassador and protect him, since “the ambassador has his own security detail.” Rather, the marines’ responsibility is to protect the embassy’s classified documents.
“And he should make it clear that even if you’d had some increased security, it wouldn’t have been able to stop this attack. You would have needed a division to do that,” Korb says, “and the fact is that most ambassadors don’t want to have a whole retinue of security around them.”
Obama should also point out that Ambassador Stevens’s father has requested publicly that his son’s death not be politicized and used to score points in the election campaign, Korb says.
The debate over what happened in Benghazi is intensifying just as some polls are showing that American voters want to hear more from the presidential candidates on international issues and America’s role in the world.
A poll out this week from the Better World Campaign, an organization promoting US interaction with the United Nations, finds that three-fourths of Americans say international issues will have an impact on how they vote – even as about half of voters say the presidential candidates aren’t addressing foreign policy and international issues enough.
In responding to an open-ended question, Americans said their top international concerns were ending the war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, relations with Israel, and how to address the changes sweeping the Middle East.
That last response might be seen as encompassing the Benghazi terrorist attack, but the poll did not seem to suggest that voters want a debate on international issues to be dominated by a blame game.