Behind the Benghazi Frenzy

The continued Republican frenzy over the killings in Benghazi, which has now been going on for more than two months, is pretty obviously motivated by partisan opportunism, linked to the frustrated desire for an “Obama scandal,” and for validation of the underlying conservative narrative that the administration is more concerned about pandering to Muslims than protecting Americans. But putting all that aside (if you can), along with the Petraeus side-show, there’s the underlying problem of an U.S. diplomatic structure that is being encouraged to think first and foremost of its own safety, rather than its actual mission. This is the topic of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece by Robert Worth that traces the devolution of U.S. embassies and consulates from interactive listening posts to isolated fortresses, beginning most notably with the Beirut bombings of 1983. Here’s a brief excerpt from the detail-rich piece, which deserves to be read in its entirety:

Three decades later, after serving as an ambassador in three countries, [Ronald] Neumann found himself marveling at how much his profession has changed. “The dangers have gotten worse, but the change is partly psychological,” he told me. “There’s less willingness among our political leaders to accept risks, and all that has driven us into the bunker.”

Nothing illustrated those changes better than the death of J. Christopher Stevens, after an assault by jihadis on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Stevens was a brave and thoughtful diplomat who, like Neumann, lived to engage with ordinary people in the countries where he served, to get past the wire. Yet his death was treated as a scandal, and it set off a political storm that seems likely to tie the hands of American diplomats around the world for some time to come. Congressmen and Washington pundits accused the administration of concealing the dangers Americans face abroad and of failing Stevens by providing inadequate security. Threats had been ignored, the critics said, seemingly unaware that a background noise of threats is constant at embassies across the greater Middle East. The death of an ambassador would not be seen as the occasional price of a noble but risky profession; someone had to be blamed.

While Worth focuses on the Beirut bombings as the turning point, you could make a strong argument that the politicization of diplomatic deaths, and in turn the lowering of the “political risk” threshold, dates back to the Iran Hostage Crisis. Those searing events were intimately connected (in memory and symbolism more than election data) with the demise of the Carter Administration and the rise of Ronald Reagan (though Reagan himself initiated a literal withdrawal of U.S. diplomacy from Lebanon after the Beurit bombings).

As Paul Glastris argued this weekend on the McLaughlin Group (at about the ten minute mark in the video below), the Hostage Crisis introduced the idea that the physical safety of U.S. diplomats was an overriding measurement of national strength and even honor. This in turn created a political demand for the kind of partisan opportunism we are seeing over Benghazi, particularly since the GOP was already deeply invested in making the 2012 elections an echo of 1980, with Obama cast in the role of the allegedly weak and feckless Carter.

Yet because millions of Americans had the same perception of the Hostage Crisis as a historic low-point in U.S. prestige, the Benghazi frenzy, vastly excessive as it is on many levels, has obtained full-scale MSM credibility, unlike its domestic counterpart, the “Fast and Furious” brouhaha in Congress earlier this year, which did not gain significant purchase outside conservative media.

Personally, I’d say the syndrome that Worth and Glastris are talking about goes back further, at least to the days when Richard Nixon justified the perpetuation of the Vietnam War as necessary to “protect our troops as they withdraw.” Everyone naturally wants Americans sent into harm’s way to be exposed to as small a risk of death or injury as possible. But when war itself is waged “to protect the troops,” and when politicians call for militarized diplomatic posts that may defeat the whole purpose of diplomacy, we are letting the tail wag the dog to a highly irrational degree.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.