The Benghazi Test: How and Why Obama's Foreign Policy Passed It

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The consulate attack may prove challenging to the White House, but it's hardly the outrage the president's critics claim.

RTR3AM0T-615.pngPring Samrang/Reuters

According to conservative critics, Benghazi reveals the bankruptcy of Obama's foreign policy, his weakness against terrorism, and his dissembling style. But the prominence of "Benghazi-gate" actually suggests the opposite: the president's foreign policy is fairly successful. Benghazi is what a "scandal" looks like when there aren't any real scandals to talk about.

We live in a hyper-partisan age. 2012 was an election year. Republicans are desperate to assail Obama for something, and they chose Benghazi as their best shot. Fox News contributor Oliver North called Obama's behavior "unconscionable." The president "failed in his most important responsibility," to protect American lives. The administration "tried to deceive us" about the events of September 11, 2012 by portraying the attack "as a spontaneous event precipitated by a video that was up on YouTube." Under Obama, "incompetence, malevolence, and misfeasance have been boundless."

Certainly, the death of an American ambassador and three colleagues abroad is a tragic and serious issue. There are important lessons to be learned about the security of diplomats in dangerous locations like Benghazi. In the days after the attack, the administration sent mixed -- and sometimes confusing -- messages about whether a terrorist cell or a popular backlash against the YouTube video was responsible.

A blunder? Sure. Administration confusion? Absolutely. But a full-blown scandal? Hardly.

The day after the attacks, on September 12, Obama signaled that the YouTube video might have been important, rejecting "all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." But the president added: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation." And in an interview on 60 Minutes the same day, Obama said: "my suspicion is, is that there are folks involved in this, who were looking to target Americans from the start."

The truth is that American diplomatic officials have long risked their lives for their country. In 2002, during the George W. Bush administration, a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad killed Barbara Green, an employee at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. The same year, Laurence Foley, from the U.S. Agency for International Development, was gunned down in Amman, Jordan. In 2004, Edward Seitz, from the State Department's bureau of diplomatic security, was blown up in Baghdad. Two year later, in 2006, David Foy, a facilities maintenance officer at the U.S. embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, was murdered in a suicide attack. In 2008, American diplomat John Granville was shot in Khartoum, Sudan.

Clearly, security wasn't adequate in these cases either. But none of the deaths produced a political uproar. There was no Amman-gate, Islamabad-gate, Baghdad-gate, Karachi-gate, or Khartoum-gate to rival Benghazi-gate.

Why?

For one thing, there's a double standard, where Democrats are more vulnerable to being labeled weak on national security. The deeper reason is that Bush's foreign policy record was so flawed -- the Iraq War, the catastrophic invasion plan, the failure to find WMD -- that Democrats didn't have time to talk about these diplomatic deaths.

You want to know what a real scandal looks like? Ask Oliver North.

During the mid-1980s, North, who was then at the National Security Council, helped mastermind the Reagan administration's covert program of arms sales to Iran. The White House was drawn into a Faustian pact with an official state sponsor of terrorism, in which Washington traded over 2,000 missiles to Tehran in exchange for help in releasing American hostages in Lebanon.

The arms deal did free three hostages. But during the same period, three more Americans were taken prisoner in Lebanon -- creating an absurd revolving door of capture and release.

Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed selling arms to Iran, because it was of dubious legality, strengthened America's enemy, damaged America's reputation, weakened the policy of not bargaining with terrorists, and was domestically risky.

But Oliver North wasn't done yet. He put the "Contra" in "Iran-Contra" by illegally diverting the funds from the arms deal to help the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

North and his associates then destroyed documents to impede investigators -- shredding so many pages they jammed the machine. 

North was convicted of accepting an illegal gratuity, obstructing a congressional inquiry, and destroying evidence. This decision was later overturned when an appeals court found that witnesses might have been influenced by testimony that North gave to Congress under immunity.

Benghazi reveals confusion, mistakes, and even a certain amount of ineptitude. But Benghazi is a poor man's Iran-Contra. If this is the worst foreign policy scandal of Obama's first term, then he's in reasonable shape.

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, TIME.com, and on NPR.
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