Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday May 12th, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore



We have come to expect hyperbole in what passes for political debate in this country. It’s what happens when the loudest voices making the most outrageous claims get most of the headlines and air-time. But even in today’s permissive media climate (permissive in the sense that truth and relationship to reality doesn’t matter,) Mike Huckabee took hyperbole to breathless new heights this past week. The former Arkansas governor, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and now hosts a conservative radio talk-show predicted that because of his “cover-up” of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Libya last year, President Barack Obama is going to be forced out of office before he completes his second term. Huckabee went on to suggest that Benghazi was “more serious than Watergate”, because while no one died in the Watergate scandal, “this was more serious because four Americans did in fact die.”


Normally, I would not give space to what I am sure is top of the wish list of the Obama haters. But when most of the Republican members of congress appear to have been co-opted by what once was considered their party’s extremist fringe, even such off-the-wall predictions can’t be totally ignored. And it turns out Senator Lindsay Graham also said something similar, even though the suggestion that Benghazi was a cover-up of the magnitude of Watergate, is preposterous.


This past week three State Department officials who had been in Tripoli, Libya on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 had their moment in the spotlight giving their version of events that fateful night. They were billed as “whistle blowers” by Congressman Darryl Issa (R-CA) the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (and the Republican’s own Inspector Javert.) They came across more as earnest, courageous and disappointed foreign service officers who classically feel they know more than their bosses in Washington and are hurt when their advice is ignored. (As a career foreign correspondent I totally understand that feeling.) The number two American diplomat in Libya at the time, Gregory Hicks was the main witness. He told a compelling tale but his complaints were mostly with Washington bureaucracy and there was hardly a whiff of actual political scandal. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who is often highly critical of the president, wrote,”Hicks was of little use to Republicans in their efforts to connect the lapses in the Benghazi response to Clinton or to the Obama White House…Hicks didn’t lay a glove on the former secretary of state….Instead of hearing a tale of political shenanigans, those in the audience heard a far better story of confusion and desperation on the ground.”


Confusing and desperate I am sure it was. Libya was then and remains in an early post-revolutionary period that is unstable and unpredictable - so decisions made in that atmosphere are often going to be questionable, especially in retrospect. The administration’s own investigation headed by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen and retired senior diplomat Thomas Pickering found that serious mistakes were made in the handling of the Benghazi attack and its aftermath. They made numerous important recommendations involving embassy security and some mid-level personnel changes which former secretary Clinton embraced and started implementing. When Ambassador Pickering, who as a top career foreign service officer with an impeccable record for competence and integrity was asked last week about a possible cover-up, he said, “The notion of a cover-up has all the elements of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.” Knowing what I know about him over many years, I believe Pickering.


To even imply that the president could be impeached and forced to resign over the Benghazi attack is stunningly out of proportion to the event. A president who took the country to war under false pretences resulting in not four but many thousands of Americans killed and injured not to mention the two trillion dollar financial costs, might have been a candidate for impeachment, but of course wasn’t.


It is important to note that among those who have been trying to make a major issue out of Benghazi are the same people who strongly supported the invasion of Iraq, who have been beating the drum for two years for significant American military intervention in Syria, (And who also can’t seem to wait for president Obama to start a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities). Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham are the ubiquitous Sunday morning talk-show faces leading a coterie of neo-conservatives, many of whom advocated and then administered President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. That alone ought to raise serious questions about their judgment and their motives, but it rarely seems to.


In my view the strongest argument against the United States increasing its military involvement in Syria is that there is no reason to believe such stepped up military activity will hasten the complete end of this bloody and tragic conflict. Rather it would seem to simply draw America more deeply into the regional ongoing struggle for power between Sunni Muslims (including Islamic extremists) encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslims who take their lead from the mullahs of Iran. To see where that could take us, we have only to look at the two decades of civil war in Lebanon or the sectarian killings that are again increasing in Iraq, a full ten years after the American invasion code named “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”


Hopes for a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis got a slight boost this past week when Russia was apparently persuaded by Secretary of State John Kerry to proceed with a peace conference on Syria - something Russia had agreed to in principle last June. As David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s excellent foreign affairs columnist wrote, “What the United States and Russia seem to have realized is that a negotiated transition of power is better than a fight to the death that would destabilize the region….. This isn’t a breakthrough, but at least it’s a beginning.”

Let us devoutly hope so.

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