We continue to learn more disturbing things about the Benghazi scandal. In addition to the story by ABC’s Jonathan Karl, which Jonathan Tobin referenced, Stephen Hayes–who has been doing fantastic reporting on this matter–has a story in the forthcoming issue of the Weekly Standard in which we learn this:
CIA director David Petraeus was surprised when he read the freshly rewritten talking points an aide had emailed him in the early afternoon of Saturday, September 15. One day earlier, analysts with the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis had drafted a set of unclassified talking points policymakers could use to discuss the attacks in Benghazi, Libya. But this new version — produced with input from senior Obama administration policymakers — was a shadow of the original.
After recounting the details, Hayes says this:
National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, in writing about the House hearings on the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, said, “Benghazi was a tragedy. It will, almost certainly, remain a political issue. What it is not – by a long shot — is a scandal yet.”
To understand why this judgment is wrong, it’s helpful to keep in mind that weeks after the attack the Obama administration claimed the cause of the violence was a spontaneous demonstration, not pre-planned attacks; that the cause of the demonstrations was an anti-Muslim YouTube video; and that there was no terrorist involvement in the attacks.
Now compare that narrative with some of what we learned based on the testimonies of Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya before he became the top American diplomat in Libya after Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered, as well as Mark Thompson, the former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
1. Mr. Hicks confirmed that he received a call from Ambassador Stevens shortly before he died. Stevens said to Hicks, “Greg, we’re under attack.” (Not, “There’s a demonstration outside the diplomatic outpost.”) Mr. Hicks also confirmed that the night of the attacks the Libyan president, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, called him and said these attacks were led by Islamic extremists with possible terror links. Five days after the attack the Libyan president said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the attacks were “pre-planned” and “pre-determined.” And Mr. Hicks told the House committee, “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that this was an attack. No protest.” Mr. Hicks also emphasized there was “no report” from anyone on the ground that that there was a demonstration.
The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.
It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.
In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.
At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.
Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.
The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.
If you listen to the Pentagon and the White House, there is no viable military option in Syria—even American air strikes supposedly would be too dangerous because of Bashar Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses. The Israeli Air Force doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, however.
For at least the second time since January, Israel attacked a target in Syria, hitting a warehouse in Damascus on Friday that apparently stored advanced Fateh-110 missiles shipped from Iran and intended for Hezbollah. In late January, Israel similarly struck SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons intended for Hezbollah. There are so-far unconfirmed reports of yet another Israeli air strike in Damascus on Sunday morning.
Israel is doing what it must to defend itself—to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of the current conflict to further enhance its already formidable arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel. Its neighbors know that Israel is a serious country that acts when threatened. Not so with the U.S. that has announced a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria but refuses to act even when that line has been crossed. Instead, administration officials are leaking word that the “red line” phrase was an off-the-cuff mistake by the president.
These are not good days for Barack Obama.
His second term agenda has broken down. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not pass even a single part of his gun-control agenda. His effort to use sequestration to batter Republicans has backfired. His budget was sent up to Capitol Hill two months late–and was immediately dismissed. If immigration reform passes, it will be because Democrats kept the president on the sideline, fully aware that his presence in negotiations with Republicans would only make success more unlikely.
In his press conference earlier this week, Mr. Obama was forced to plead that he is still relevant. “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point,” he said. (“At this point” is a curious and revealing formulation.)
It finally seems to be dawning on much of the Washington press corps that President Obama doesn’t much like the way governance works in a democracy and so he just doesn’t do what presidents are paid to do: get things done.
It seems that his press conference yesterday, marking the hundredth day of his second term, was more or less of a disaster. He whined that his failure on gun control, cybersecurity, and removal of the sequester was all the fault of Congress, and especially congressional Republicans. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post slices and dices that one most effectively. But Jen, of course, is a conservative. More surprising, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also beats him up big time.
It’s hard to believe that anyone—outside the White House—takes President Obama seriously anymore. It’s crystal clear that foreign leaders think that the U.S. president is a paper tiger. Enemies calculate that the former senator leading a team of former senators is heavy on rhetoric but light on action. And friends, too, understand that at best Obama is a nice prop around which to take a photo, but when push comes to shove they need not listen to him.
Put aside Obama’s willful abandonment of his Syria chemical weapons red line, an “I told you so moment” for hardliners from Pyongyang to Tehran to Caracas and perhaps Buenos Aires, who are likely now chastising any handwringing moderates who worried what crossing Washington might have cost. Friends, too, are getting in on the game. In just a couple weeks, Obama will be hosting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House, never mind that Erdoğan snubbed the U.S. request that he cancel a planned trip to the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders, a group which Erdoğan has long supported.
Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.
The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America.
I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.
It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.
For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:
We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.
Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.
In a recent Pew Research Center poll, we’re told:
Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light. Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year. By contrast, just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.
In examining the partisan breakdown, the Pew poll shows that there has been a steep decline in the share of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion of the federal government since Mr. Obama took office, from 61 percent in July 2009 to 41 percent currently. Favorable opinions also have fallen among Republicans over this period, from 24 percent to 13 percent—the lowest ever favorable rating among members of either party.
As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”
Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”
I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”
Even in an administration as skilled in manipulating the media as that of Barack Obama, there are still some things that are more greatly valued than a finely crafted piece of political spin. One of those is the need to pay back supporters for their efforts in the president’s re-election campaign. That’s why President Obama will be addressing Planned Parenthood in Washington on Friday. Given the prominent role that PP President Cecile Richards played last year as surrogate speaker for the president, and the organization’s central part in promoting the idea that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” Obama’s decision to speak at the event seems only natural. But the timing of his appearance at a Planned Parenthood conference couldn’t be worse.
The problem stems from the admission on the part of an official of the group’s Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate reported last week by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Speaking with Gloria Steinem at the group’s annual Spring Gathering at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, Dayle Steinberg said Planned Parenthood was aware of problems at the infamous abortion clinic operated by Kermit Gosnell:
Steinberg said that when Gosnell was in practice, women would sometimes come to Planned Parenthood for services after first visiting Gosnell’s West Philadelphia clinic, and would complain to staff about the conditions there.
“We would always encourage them to report it to the Department of Health,” Steinberg said as she sat with Steinem before Tuesday’s events.
While this doesn’t make the group responsible for the atrocities that were allegedly committed by Gosnell, it does raise questions as to why an organization avowedly dedicated to protecting the health of women chose not to take any action on its own or to investigate what was going on. As Wesley J. Smith noted at National Review yesterday, it does remind one of the old saying, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Coming as it does, in the aftermath of a damaging comment by a Florida Planned Parenthood official who thought whether clinic personnel should render medical assistance to a baby born as a result of a botched abortion was an open question, the comments about the ongoing Gosnell trial might have made the group politically toxic. But President Obama owes Planned Parenthood too much to pass on a chance to embrace them.
As I noted earlier, yesterday’s Senate votes on the Manchin-Toomey amendment as well as other provisions ended the chances that any gun control legislation will pass Congress this year. While Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have vowed to keep pushing for assault weapon bans and other proposals that have zero chance of passage, from this point forward the debate will be conducted solely with an eye toward public opinion and next year’s midterm election, not any specific legislation. That means that while some may dismiss yesterday’s bitter post-vote comments by President Obama and other gun control advocates as mere posturing, they are actually quite significant.
Obama, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords and other supporters of various new restrictions were not shy about lambasting the National Rifle Association during the last four months. The Newtown massacre gave the White House an excuse to resurrect gun control as a national issue, yet he was sufficiently interested in attracting the votes of wavering members of Congress that he tended to restrict his demagoguery to the stock villains of the National Rifle Association leadership. But yesterday’s defeat changed all that. The rejection of Manchin-Toomey has set off a wave of almost hysterical denunciations of gun rights advocates from Obama, Giffords and media figures like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski today that has lowered the discourse on the issue to a level that has rarely been seen before. After spending much of the last few years accusing right-wing Tea Party members of incivility that was at the heart of the dysfunction of our political system, liberals have now raised the stakes in this game to a point where dialogue is now impossible.
The once-”special relationship” between the UK and the U.S.–which as recently as the past decade produced remarkably close collaboration between George W. Bush and Tony Blair–grows less special by the day. President Obama began his term by exiling from the Oval Office a bust of Winston Churchill that had been displayed by Bush; although he kept an identical bust which has been in the presidential residence since the Johnson administration, this was a small, symbolic move that indicated Obama’s diminished regard for the greatest of British prime ministers.
Now Obama has snubbed the second-greatest British prime minister by refusing to send any members of his administration to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. The U.S. delegation was led by former secretaries of state George Shultz and Jim Baker–great men, to be sure, but they served in the Reagan administration. Where was Joe Biden? Isn’t the vice president’s chief job to attend funerals? But apparently he had more urgent things to do–as did, it seems, every single member of the Obama cabinet and even such unemployed politicians as Bill and Hillary Clinton.
At the White House yesterday afternoon, President Obama did not seek to disguise his anger about the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases. The stage-managed ceremony, in which the families of the victims of the Newtown massacre were paraded along with former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was intended to fuel a backlash against the 42 Republicans and four Democratic members of the U.S. Senate who voted against the measure. The 46 no votes that prevented the adoption of the amendment were portrayed as the product of cowardice and the malign influence of the National Rifle Association and its allies who had thwarted the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans that polls say support expanded background checks.
The president’s threats—amplified elsewhere in the liberal media—made it clear he thinks the American people would soon rise up and smite the recalcitrant opponents of gun control. The decision of gun rights advocates not to embrace an inoffensive measure like Manchin-Toomey, which would not infringe on the Second Amendment, will help keep this issue alive for the 2014 midterms. We can expect the president to continue trotting out the Newtown families at every opportunity. But now that the Senate has effectively ended any chance of new gun legislation, the question is whether this vote will actually give the president and his party the sort of leverage in the 2014 midterms that could not only change the result on guns but also give Democrats the control of Congress that Obama wants to complete his legacy. Though liberals, anticipating a campaign fueled by rage and grief and funded by billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, think it will and conservatives are assuming it will flop, the answer is a bit more complicated than either side assumes.
The Senate voted this afternoon on the Manchin-Toomey bipartisan compromise amendment on background checks for weapon purchases, and the result was no surprise. The measure got 54 votes, six short of the total needed for an amendment to be tacked onto the existing Democratic bill. While the Senate will go on talking about the issue, this vote closes the chapter on the four-month-long push for gun control that was launched by President Obama after the Newtown massacre. The concept pushed by moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and conservative Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey was the only possible addition to the roster of existing gun laws that had a prayer of becoming law. But if even this idea couldn’t be passed in the Democrat-run Senate, it’s self-evident that there is no possible proposal that could be agreed upon by both houses of Congress.
That means the National Rifle Association, which vowed to fight to the last against even a moderate expansion of background checks, let alone a ban on assault weapons or large ammunition clips that Democrats want, will have a valid claim to be the big winner of this legislative battle. But they need to make room in the winner’s circle for their arch foe, President Obama. By convincing all but four of the Senate Republican caucus to oppose Manchin-Toomey, the NRA spiked an inoffensive measure that could have given the GOP cover against charges that it obstructed any movement on guns after Newtown. That’s a gift that President Obama, who is hoping to grab back control of Congress next year, will gratefully accept.
In February 1946, about a month before Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Missouri, Churchill had dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Though it would serve both President Harry Truman and Churchill to downplay any hint that Truman approved the content of Churchill’s speech beforehand, neither wanted any surprises. At his dinner with the American ambassador to Cuba, R. Henry Norweb, Churchill spoke plainly about his thoughts on the Soviet Union and the United Nations. Norweb relayed the comments to Truman the following day, in which he described Churchill’s comments on the Soviet Union’s Communist threat as recalling Churchill’s “world-shaking oratory” about the Nazis years earlier. Norweb continued:
Mr. Churchill went on to express his conviction that the only escape from future disaster, the only hope for [the United Nations Organization], lies in the development over the years of some definite working agreement between the American and British Governments. He fully understands, he said, that any formal merger or alliance would doubtless now be impracticable, untimely and unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic–but he holds that the sheer pressure of events will of necessity force our two great commonwealths to come together in some workable manner if the peace and order of the world are to be preserved from chaos.
It may be a little early to write it off completely, but today’s Politico feature on the gun legislation being considered by the Senate leaves readers with the distinct impression that the effort is doomed. With so many Republicans, including a majority of those who voted for cloture that allowed the bill to be considered, lining up to oppose the bipartisan compromise on background checks proposed by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, its chances of passage are not good. Moreover, even if it somehow squeaks by in the Senate, it now appears that there is no sign that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives is inclined to approve anything, even a bill as moderate as Manchin-Toomey, that falls under the rubric of gun control.
If so, it won’t be long before the postmortems on the push for gun legislation begin in full force and, as the Politico piece indicated, it will be the National Rifle Association and its allies that will be considered the main culprits. The NRA will be happy to take full credit from the mainstream media for Manchin-Toomey’s failure since it reinforces their image as an all-powerful lobby that can intimidate both conservative Republicans and moderate red-state Democrats to back off even the most reasonable proposals. But the reason for their success in rallying opposition to the bill since the Newtown massacre gave a new impetus to this cause may not stem entirely from the group’s ability to convince legislators that opposing their dictates is a ticket to political oblivion. Liberals may believe they can make political hay from what they will brand as Republican obstructionism in next year’s midterm elections. But they should realize that it is their decision to overreach in their calls for weapon bans that has given the NRA all the ammunition it needed to convince many conservatives that the goal of this campaign truly is to undermine the Second Amendment rights that the president claims to have designs on.