Fish or Cut Bait Time

I’ve been struggling all morning to figure out what if anything to say about yesterday’s House GOP hearings on Benghazi!. Conservatives are for the most part very excited because the first fingers have been pointed directly at Hillary Clinton, while enough evidence of early internal warnings the attacks were al Qaeda-orchestrated has arisen to lift the central claim of a “coverup” from pure fantasy to an argument over the meaning of the term. More importantly for the case for treating Benghazi! as anything other than a right-wing fever dream, Republicans finally have witnesses from outside their own camp to support at least some of their contentions.

But reaction to yesterday’s events from outside the conservative movement and the GOP have been almost uniformly “meh.” Kevin Drum deployed one of my favorite terms for a sound and fury signifying little, “nothingburger.” The National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh probably spoke for many observers in saying the hearings scored a few technical points about administration incompetence, but were missing their intended goal almost entirely:

[T]he obvious Republican effort to turn this inquiry into the Democratic (Obama) version of the Iraq intelligence scandal that has tarred the GOP since the George W. Bush years — led by that least-credible of champions, the almost-always-wrong Darrell Issa — is just not going to amount to much.

But my favorite non-abrasive comment (I’m sure by day’s end I’ll read a lot of fine abrasive comments) is from Andrew Sabl at The Reality-Based Community, who simply begs Republicans to make up their minds what they are actually pursuing here:

Look, I’m not a Benghazi expert. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there’s something here that the media aren’t telling me. But before I evaluate the case, I need to see some concrete charges. My challenge to conservatives is to tell me, very simply, the following:

(1) What, in your view, was the crime? Who did what and which law did it break? No crime, no cover-up (in the usual sense).

But the idea seems to be that what was “covered up” was not crime but incompetence. (That stretches the former meaning of “cover-up,” but never mind.) So:

(2) Who failed competently to perform his or her job, in which concrete ways? Which decisions are we talking about, by whom, at what time, and on what grounds should we believe that a competent person in the job in question would have had to make a different decision? Again, failure to devote unlimited resources to guarding every consulate at all times does not constitute an incompetent decision but rather precisely a competent one. And a judgment (apparently held by the diplomats on the ground at the time) that there was a tradeoff between high security and diplomatic effectiveness is also, absent conclusive arguments to the contrary, quite defensible. We need more.

(3) What information was covered up, and how? What facts do we (a) now know to be the case that (b) were previously concealed from view by (c) illegitimate threats or undue influence (as opposed to agency politics as usual, whereby those higher up would rather sweep mistakes under the rug but grudgingly tolerate subordinates who air them)?

Unless all three of these elements in (3) are present, there was no cover-up—at most a halfhearted attempt at a cover-up, or an honest difference of opinion about facts. And unless number (1) or (2) is present, there was nothing to cover up.

At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.

This confusion reflects the more systemic confusion among Benghazi! enthusiasts about the ultimate meaning of the events they find so gripping. Are they saying the United States should have instantly relaunched the Global War On Terror in response to the sacking of the consulate? Do they claim Barack Obama would have lost the 2012 presidential election had he and his team “come clean” about what they knew? Or is it simply a matter of “allowing” the deaths in Benghazi? If so, that kind of raises retroactive questions about the far greater number of deaths “allowed” by Ronald Reagan in Beirut in 1983 despite specific warnings from his own Secretary of Defense, not to mention the vast number of deaths attributable to the Bush 43 administration’s dismissal of warnings from the State Department about the consequences of occupying Iraq.

Sabl’s absolutely right: we should be well past the fishing-expedition phase of this investigation. Let’s have some specific charges and some clarity about the case, or nobody outside the Republican Party is going to pay attention any longer.

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.