Commentary Magazine


Topic: Susan Rice

At War with the English Language

The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

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The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

That’s the takeaway from this interview Rice did on CNN. Apparently, whether or not we call this a war is up to you, the public. The administration isn’t really sure, so they’re going to crowdsource it, Wikipedia-style. Here’s Rice telling Wolf Blitzer that what’s important is not whether you call a war a war but that you just follow your heart, man:

I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign. I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. It will be sustained. We will not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war. So I think this is very different from that. But nonetheless, we’ll be dealing with the significant threat to this region, to American personnel in the region and potentially also to Europe and the United States. And we’ll be doing it with partners. We’ll not be fighting ourselves on the ground but using American air power as we have been over the last several weeks as necessary.

Now, it should be noted that Rice’s opinion is consistent with some but not all such statements by current American officials, because a coherent vision has not and will not be forthcoming from the White House. Here’s John Kerry, saying it’s not a war:

The U.S. is not at war with ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted today, describing the military campaign outlined by President Obama as “a counterterrorism operation of a significant order.”

And yet at today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest changed tune:

And the Pentagon:

How the administration sees this war is important not only for the constitutional implications, which are serious enough. It’s also because the way officials are describing it gives us an indication of their overarching strategy. There’s no question ISIS is a terrorist group, and thus the administration certainly isn’t wrong in saying that combating ISIS will require elements of counterterrorism.

But ISIS is also more than just a terrorist group. It may not be a state, as the president said in his speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s without state-like characteristics, and that matters for how the U.S. military will approach rolling it back and ultimately defeating it.

As I wrote last week, ISIS’s declarations of statehood may just be bluster, but they indicate something else: that ISIS is operating as if Iraq, Syria, and its other targets are not states either. Most of the terrorist groups the West has fought in the global war on terror were either state-like and static–think the Taliban, Hezbollah, or Hamas–or fluid and less interested in collapsing existing states and declaring their own, like the al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that try to hit American and Western targets.

With ISIS, although there is concern they could try to attack the homeland, the primary threat does not appear to be random suicide bombers or even training grounds for wannabe jihadis. (Though the number of European passport holders flocking to ISIS territory raises that threat as well.) What ISIS has done is essentially put together a kind of standing army that seeks to capture and hold strategic territory. As the terrorism scholar William McCants told the site ThinkProgress earlier this week with regard to an influential 2004 jihadist manifesto and its similarities with ISIS tactics:

“The key idea in the book is that you need to carry out attacks on a local government and sensitive infrastructure — tourism and energy in particular,” McCants said. “That causes a local government to pull in security resources to protect that infrastructure that will open up pockets where there is no government — a security vacuum.”

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

There’s an actual strategy here, and it’s not just about causing mayhem and it’s not just about targeting symbols of the West. Principles of counterterrorism can be very helpful in fighting ISIS, but an army on the march demands more than that. Which is why the language from the commander in chief on down is so important.

Perhaps they’re getting it right. Today’s briefings seem to mark a shift toward admitting we’re at war. But that will also require dropping the silly word games meant to deride ISIS, as if taunting them will bring victory or minimizing the threat will attract more global support for the war. The president needs to get the terminology right, and then get the strategy right. At the moment, officials are giving off the impression that they’re not quite sure what they’ve gotten us into.

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R2P Is MIA for the Besieged Yezidis of Iraq

Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

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Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

Susan Rice, now the national security adviser, then the UN ambassador, gave an impassioned address in 2009 in which she said: “The Responsibility to Protect—or, as it has come to be known, R2P—represents an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict.” This principle formed an important justification for the U.S. intervention along with NATO allies in Libya in 2011 to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering opponents of his regime. In 2012 Obama even created an Atrocities Prevention Board to carry out this humanitarian doctrine.

But in practice R2P has been MIA in this White House. Since 2011 more than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria–one ongoing atrocity after another–and the result has been a shrug from the White House which seems more concerned with stopping Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists. Now there is an even more urgent example of precisely the kind of atrocity that should motivate the U.S. and other powers into action. I am referring to the plight of the Yazidis–members of a small religious minority rooted in Zoroastrianism–who have been in the gunsights of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as its black-clad fighters have rolled over northern Iraq.

Last week ISIS took the Iraqi town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee for their lives. Many took refuge on Mount Sinjar where they have been meeting an appalling fate–devoid of food and water, they are slowly dying yet are afraid to come down from the mountain for fear that they will be slaughtered by ISIS if they do so. As many as 40,000 people remain trapped and they are desperate for help. The Washington Post quotes a UNICEF official saying: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

Tens of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq are also on the run, knowing they face death at the hands of ISIS. Yet so wary is the Obama administration of any involvement in Iraq that it is not even willing to send U.S. cargo aircraft to drop food and water to the trapped Yazidis–much less to call in air strikes that would break the siege of Mount Sinjar.

The president’s chief foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes grandly proclaims that Obama is busy positioning “the U.S. to lead for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.” His gaze firmly fixed decades in the future, Obama seems to be missing the preventable atrocities–which not only violate the R2P doctrine but also threaten vital American national security interests–that are occurring in the here and now.

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Susan Rice: A One-Woman Credibility Gap

Back in September 2012, there were a lot of people, including many conservative critics of the Obama administration who thought the Obama White House hung Susan Rice out to dry after the Benghazi terror attacks. Rice had nothing to do with the decisions that put Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in harm’s way only to be slain by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Nor had she, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, any responsibility for the manner with which the State Department had bungled the Libyan venture and anti-terror policy. But she was the one delegated by the administration to be the voice of its spin of this disaster. It was Rice who was handed the infamous talking points that sought—on all five major Sunday programs—to persuade the American people that the Benghazi attack was the result of film criticism run amok rather than terrorism. It was quickly apparent that this was a brazen lie concocted by the White House for political purposes. Alone of top administration officials, Rice paid the highest penalty for Benghazi since her fateful morning in the spotlight almost certainly cost her the chance to be secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. But in spite of all this, Rice has refused to back down and apologize for her statements.

So it was surprising that Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, would win up in roughly the same position this week during the fallout from the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap. Last Sunday, when the administration was seeking to portray the exchange as a triumph for the president, Rice went again to the Sunday shows to proclaim that the deal was worthy of celebration and then added that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Since then, Rice has taken a beating in the media as the truth about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and America-bashing was revealed, as any sensible person must have always known it would be. Yet when offered a chance to back down from her egregious comments today on CNN, Rice again refused to do the sensible thing, instead again doubling down on her fibs, arguing that Bergdahl’s presence in a war zone in uniform entitled him to be described in this manner. Rather than acknowledging that her rhetoric made her seem like the administration’s chief fabulist, Rice turned her ire on those who questioned her latest foray into fiction.

But the second instance in which she has been outed as a purveyor of the most transparent “pants-on-fire” type of spin means that Rice can no longer be portrayed as a victim. Whatever you may think about Bergdahl or the decision to trade five top Taliban terrorists for him, there can be no debate about the fact that Rice has severely damaged her own reputation in this business. After all, her definition of what entitles a soldier to be termed as having served with “honor and distinction” would equally apply to Benedict Arnold as it does to Americans who actually have behaved heroically.

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Back in September 2012, there were a lot of people, including many conservative critics of the Obama administration who thought the Obama White House hung Susan Rice out to dry after the Benghazi terror attacks. Rice had nothing to do with the decisions that put Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in harm’s way only to be slain by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Nor had she, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, any responsibility for the manner with which the State Department had bungled the Libyan venture and anti-terror policy. But she was the one delegated by the administration to be the voice of its spin of this disaster. It was Rice who was handed the infamous talking points that sought—on all five major Sunday programs—to persuade the American people that the Benghazi attack was the result of film criticism run amok rather than terrorism. It was quickly apparent that this was a brazen lie concocted by the White House for political purposes. Alone of top administration officials, Rice paid the highest penalty for Benghazi since her fateful morning in the spotlight almost certainly cost her the chance to be secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. But in spite of all this, Rice has refused to back down and apologize for her statements.

So it was surprising that Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, would win up in roughly the same position this week during the fallout from the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap. Last Sunday, when the administration was seeking to portray the exchange as a triumph for the president, Rice went again to the Sunday shows to proclaim that the deal was worthy of celebration and then added that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Since then, Rice has taken a beating in the media as the truth about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and America-bashing was revealed, as any sensible person must have always known it would be. Yet when offered a chance to back down from her egregious comments today on CNN, Rice again refused to do the sensible thing, instead again doubling down on her fibs, arguing that Bergdahl’s presence in a war zone in uniform entitled him to be described in this manner. Rather than acknowledging that her rhetoric made her seem like the administration’s chief fabulist, Rice turned her ire on those who questioned her latest foray into fiction.

But the second instance in which she has been outed as a purveyor of the most transparent “pants-on-fire” type of spin means that Rice can no longer be portrayed as a victim. Whatever you may think about Bergdahl or the decision to trade five top Taliban terrorists for him, there can be no debate about the fact that Rice has severely damaged her own reputation in this business. After all, her definition of what entitles a soldier to be termed as having served with “honor and distinction” would equally apply to Benedict Arnold as it does to Americans who actually have behaved heroically.

An official who not only spreads lies but also won’t disavow them even when caught red-handed has lost the right to be treated as a plausible spokesperson for anything, let alone an American government. Susan Rice must now face up to the fact that she is a one-woman credibility gap who is an embarrassment to the United States government.

Is Rice’s predilection for telling outrageous fibs while fronting for the administration more a commentary on the president who sends her out to do such things than on herself? It’s hard to say.

It is true that Rice does not bear total responsibility for these lies. As we now know, it took a committee of administration spinners to craft the Benghazi talking points. The decision to treat Bergdahl as a returning hero and to treat his parents to the full White House PR treatment surely came from the very top of the West Wing food chain. But Rice’s talent for overstatement and her inability to take responsibility for her mistakes, even when they have exposed her to the worst sort of public ridicule, cannot be attributed to the president or any of the clueless advisors that persuaded him to treat the prisoner swap as an opportunity to make political hay.

As we have seen with his treatment of other officials who failed him, the president is slow to hold his top staff accountable and seems to regard admitting bad personnel judgment as a form of capitulation to his Republican foes. In particular, Rice is a personal Obama favorite and he made no secret of his anger about the fact that her Benghazi lies killed her chances to be secretary of state. But a smarter president with a better grasp of political reality would understand that his national security advisor has fatally compromised her ability to speak for him on important issues. Surely if anyone would have known the truth about Bergdahl’s behavior last week it would have been Rice. Though the chances of Obama ever owning up to the fact that she is a liability are minimal, having a national security advisor who will be best remembered for her Benghazi and Bergdahl lies is not something any president should settle for.

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Chuck Hagel’s Desperate Defense

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during a press conference yesterday, said that it’s “unfair” to judge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before all the facts are out and he gets a chance to tell his story.

“Until we get the facts, until we have … a review of all the circumstance,” Mr. Hagel said, “it’s not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”

“We don’t do that in the United States,” he continued. “We rely on facts.”

Just for the record: It was the Obama administration, in the person of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who on Sunday said that Sgt. Bergdahl served his nation with “honor and distinction.” She said this despite the Obama administration having enough facts to know that there was a high probability that Bergdahl was a deserter. So why did Team Obama judge Bergdahl to be a hero (a) before a review of all the circumstances and (b) despite the available evidence? Why are they the ones who presumed something – and presumed something that very much looks to be wrong?
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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during a press conference yesterday, said that it’s “unfair” to judge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before all the facts are out and he gets a chance to tell his story.

“Until we get the facts, until we have … a review of all the circumstance,” Mr. Hagel said, “it’s not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”

“We don’t do that in the United States,” he continued. “We rely on facts.”

Just for the record: It was the Obama administration, in the person of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who on Sunday said that Sgt. Bergdahl served his nation with “honor and distinction.” She said this despite the Obama administration having enough facts to know that there was a high probability that Bergdahl was a deserter. So why did Team Obama judge Bergdahl to be a hero (a) before a review of all the circumstances and (b) despite the available evidence? Why are they the ones who presumed something – and presumed something that very much looks to be wrong?

As for relying on the facts, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey writes 

All the details of how Bergdahl left his unit may have to be teased out in the setting of a court martial, but it has long been known that he was a malcontent who had sent his belongings home well before the day in June 2009 when he left his unit in Afghanistan, that he wrote that the army he served in was a “joke” and that he was ashamed to be an American. Was the president perhaps not aware that desertion is an act viewed with such seriousness under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that in wartime it can carry the death penalty?

Secretary Hagel doesn’t want the rest of us to draw reasonable (if not fully final) judgments based on the empirical evidence we have – including the accounts of many soldiers who served with Bergdahl – for only one reason: To protect the president from the withering criticism he has earned.

To Mr. Hagel I would simply say we don’t need lectures about morality, patriotism, honor, or what it means to uphold American principles from this administration on any matter, and certainly not on this matter. Mr. Obama and his aides once again attempted to deceive us – in this instance turning a likely deserter who may well have cost the lives of his fellow soldiers into an American hero – and in so doing turned a complicated decision into a disgraceful display.  

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Aid Can’t Buy Israel’s Silence on Iran Deal

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

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National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

The Rice visit encapsulated what has become a familiar Obama tactic to deal with the Israelis. The administration pressures Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians, sandbags them with selective and misleading leaks about those talks (as Martin Indyk did after the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative) and conducts negotiations with Iran that are clearly headed toward a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, a state of affairs that allows the Jewish state’s very existence to be subject to the ability of Washington to enforce an agreement with Iran that may be unenforceable. And after all that, the Israelis are supposed to cheer Obama and express gratitude because the administration has maintained the alliance and poured more money into vital projects like Iron Dome.

It should be understood that this weapons system is a key part of Israel’s defense strategy in dealing with the independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza. The strengthening of the security alliance with Israel merely maintains what other presidents began, but nevertheless Obama deserves credit for increasing the amounts spent on these projects.

When viewed in this context it is easy to understand why some Israelis are beginning to question the value of the massive aid that is given to them by the U.S. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week when discussing the views of an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who opposes all foreign aid including that given to Israel, while the help from the U.S. is important, it undercuts the country’s “strategic independence.”

Given the importance of weapons like Iron Dome that have only been made possible by American assistance, I’m not prepared to go as far as joining her in endorsing Paul’s anti-aid position. Israel still cannot afford to be cut off from U.S. military help if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over any combination of actual or potential foes. But neither should we accept Rice’s nice words about the U.S. “investment” as adequate compensation for the underhanded way in which Indyk has sandbagged Netanyahu, let alone the coming betrayal on Iran.

The administration seems to operate on the assumption that keeping the aid dollars flowing to Jerusalem covers a multitude of its sins even to the point of making up for an American push for détente with the vicious anti-Semitic and potentially genocidal regime in Tehran. But though he is wisely doing everything to not rise to Obama’s bait and to keep the daylight between Israel and the United States to a minimum, Netanyahu has to know that a tipping point may soon be coming in the balance between American aid and diplomatic treachery with Iran. It’s not clear what, if anything, Netanyahu will believe Israel is capable of doing in response to a “bad deal” with Iran up to and including a strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities before it is too late to stop their drive to a bomb. But whatever his decision might be, no one in Washington should labor under the illusion that Israeli acquiescence to an Iran deal can be bought with an anti-missile system even if some cash is thrown in on the side.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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Jay Carney’s Tower of Lies

Guy Benson, one of the nation’s outstanding young conservative commentators, lays out the case (here and here) of the White House’s mendacity on the matter of the lethal attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. 

It’s now beyond dispute that contrary to its previous claims, the White House (a) had not released all the relevant Benghazi-related material to Congress and (b) did far more than make a single, cosmetic adjustment to the talking points used by then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice when she went on five Sunday talk shows. In fact it was the White House–in the person of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications–who urged Rice to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” 

One problem: It was widely known within the administration that this was not the case. In addition, the key (fallacious) claim made by Ms. Rice wasn’t the product of what the CIA produced; it’s the result of what the White House invented.

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Guy Benson, one of the nation’s outstanding young conservative commentators, lays out the case (here and here) of the White House’s mendacity on the matter of the lethal attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. 

It’s now beyond dispute that contrary to its previous claims, the White House (a) had not released all the relevant Benghazi-related material to Congress and (b) did far more than make a single, cosmetic adjustment to the talking points used by then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice when she went on five Sunday talk shows. In fact it was the White House–in the person of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications–who urged Rice to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” 

One problem: It was widely known within the administration that this was not the case. In addition, the key (fallacious) claim made by Ms. Rice wasn’t the product of what the CIA produced; it’s the result of what the White House invented.

When Mr. Carney was pressed yesterday to defend his previous claim that the White House didn’t play a role in shaping the misleading talking points in light of the September 14, 2012 email from Ben Rhodes, he claimed the email was not about Benghazi. 

This is not just a lie; it’s a transparent and stupid lie. And if you watch Mr. Carney’s exchanges with reporters (like this one with ABC’s Jonathan Karl), you’ll find Mr. Obama’s official spokesman to be a particular kind of liar–the smug, patronizing kind. The type who becomes peevish when his lies are challenged. And who takes special pride in placing one lie atop the other, like a child using wooden blocks to build a tower.  

It’s been quite a journey for Mr. Carney, from a journalist who once pursued the truth to a White House official now disfiguring it. I wonder if, when he looks back at his corrosive and corrupting tenure, he will feel the slightest shame.

Probably not.

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Why the Benghazi Email Still Matters

The release of a new batch of White House emails relating to the September 11, 2012 Benghazi terror attack is a problem for the Obama administration. The emails, specifically one from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes, indicates that the White House was attempting to orchestrate responses to the attack in such a way as to promulgate the message that “these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” Coming as it does a day after the murder of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, the communication appears to be clear proof that the false story that the attack was a case of film criticism run amok can be traced directly to high-ranking officials with clear political motivations.

This email was, according to the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, provided to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform only two weeks ago, although Congress requested them back in August 2013. Judicial Watch published it Tuesday after it forced the government to release them via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. This raises serious questions about what Lake aptly termed a White House “slow walk” of the release of information as well as the original concerns as to why the administration was putting out a false story about the attack that senior officials already knew was incorrect. Rhodes’s email seems to confirm the suspicions of many Republicans and other administration critics that the White House was behind the false story that then National Security Council director Susan Rice spouted repeatedly the following weekend on the Sunday news shows.

But as damning as Rhodes’s email seems to be, Democrats don’t seem too worried. The story is being largely ignored or downplayed by most of the same mainstream media that helped foster the narrative that Republicans were nuts to claim the White House was covering something up. Indeed, many on the left and perhaps even some on the right think that the email controversy is a trap for the GOP because it will motivate them to waste more time hammering the administration on an issue that the public doesn’t care about. But while this may not be an issue that will be decisive in the midterm elections, Congress should not let the administration bury this episode. The American people still have a right to know why the White House lied about the origin of the attack and why it covered that lie up for more than a year.

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The release of a new batch of White House emails relating to the September 11, 2012 Benghazi terror attack is a problem for the Obama administration. The emails, specifically one from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes, indicates that the White House was attempting to orchestrate responses to the attack in such a way as to promulgate the message that “these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” Coming as it does a day after the murder of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, the communication appears to be clear proof that the false story that the attack was a case of film criticism run amok can be traced directly to high-ranking officials with clear political motivations.

This email was, according to the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, provided to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform only two weeks ago, although Congress requested them back in August 2013. Judicial Watch published it Tuesday after it forced the government to release them via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. This raises serious questions about what Lake aptly termed a White House “slow walk” of the release of information as well as the original concerns as to why the administration was putting out a false story about the attack that senior officials already knew was incorrect. Rhodes’s email seems to confirm the suspicions of many Republicans and other administration critics that the White House was behind the false story that then National Security Council director Susan Rice spouted repeatedly the following weekend on the Sunday news shows.

But as damning as Rhodes’s email seems to be, Democrats don’t seem too worried. The story is being largely ignored or downplayed by most of the same mainstream media that helped foster the narrative that Republicans were nuts to claim the White House was covering something up. Indeed, many on the left and perhaps even some on the right think that the email controversy is a trap for the GOP because it will motivate them to waste more time hammering the administration on an issue that the public doesn’t care about. But while this may not be an issue that will be decisive in the midterm elections, Congress should not let the administration bury this episode. The American people still have a right to know why the White House lied about the origin of the attack and why it covered that lie up for more than a year.

In response, administration defenders claim that this is still much ado about nothing. Does it, as Hillary Clinton asked last year, matter who said what about Benghazi that weekend when the real issue is the fact that terrorists killed four Americans?

There is some truth to this line of reasoning. A much bigger scandal than the lies told about the attack is the fact that to this day not a single one of the murderers has been captured, let alone tried and punished.

But the reason the lie still sticks in the collective craw of the American people is that the falsehoods helped reelect President Obama. As Rhodes’s communication makes clear, the White House’s No. 1 concern at that moment seemed to be more about the American people thinking that al-Qaeda was reviving than the fact that the terror group and its affiliates had done it. The attempt to convince Americans that a video was at fault (for which the administration wrongly issued a profuse apology to the Muslim world) was no innocent mistake. With the assistance of the mainstream media (remember CNN Candy Crowley intervening on behalf of the president when he was pressed on the issue by Mitt Romney?), Obama was able to maintain his stance that al-Qaeda was as dead as Osama bin Laden.

The point is Rhodes’s email reveals that Rice’s false story was not an innocent mistake. It was a cynical attempt to divert public attention from the revival of Islamist terrorism at a moment during a competitive reelection when the president was basing his reelection in no small part on the notion that he was a strong leader who had vanquished that movement.

The lie may not have changed the outcome of an election that Obama was probably fated to win anyway. Nor is it as outrageous as the subsequent failure of the United States to find the terrorists responsible for the murders. But as with so many other scandals, the coverup is in some ways worse than the original lie. As much as liberals have tired of the discussion, it should not be buried along with the four Benghazi victims.

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Rice’s “No Regrets” and Obama’s Arrogance

It’s hard to understand exactly why Susan Rice is still refusing to admit fault about her lies about the Benghazi attack. When asked this morning on Meet the Press by David Gregory whether she had any regrets about appearing on four network news shows the Sunday after the 9/11/12 attacks that took the lives of four Americans and telling the nation that what happened was the result of a demonstration against a video, Rice said she had none:

David, no. Because what I said to you that morning, and what I did every day since, was to share the best information that we had at the time. The information I provided, which I explained to you, was what we had at the moment. It could change. I commented that this was based on what we knew on that morning, was provided to me and my colleagues, and indeed, to Congress, by the intelligence community. And that’s been well validated in many different ways since. And that information turned out, in some respects, not to be 100% correct. But the notion that somehow I or anybody else in the administration misled the American people is patently false. And I think that that’s been amply demonstrated.

What point is served by this rearguard defense of the indefensible? We long since learned that senior intelligence officials, including the CIA station chief, had contradicted the demonstration myth before Rice made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to convince Americans that what had happened was not an al-Qaeda terror attack. We know that the talking points were the result of a stormy battle involving the White House, the State Department, and the CIA that led to Rice being handed material that was more the product of the administration’s political needs than the truth. But rather than simply say she’s sorry and move on—a stance that could be easily forgiven since Rice was completely uninvolved in the series of bad decisions made by the State Department under the leadership of Hillary Clinton that led to the disaster—she continues to play the loyal soldier and to parse words in order to deny that she deceived the American people. But there is something more significant here than her state of denial that is as embarrassing as it is ludicrous.

Democrats and liberals who want to “move on” from Benghazi are right to the extent that this is a controversy rooted in a specific time and place rather than a possible ongoing threat to constitutional rule such as that demonstrated in the IRS scandal or the various instances of government spying on the press and the public. But the reason why the anger about Benghazi has never dissipated is due to statements such as that of Rice that feed the cynicism of an American people that only wanted the truth in the first place and would now settle for a full accounting that the administration still seems incapable of providing. Like Clinton’s infamous “what difference does it make?” retort when asked about these deceptions, Rice’s lack of regret demonstrates the arrogance of an administration that is unwilling to own up to its faults even if doing so would serve its interests.

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It’s hard to understand exactly why Susan Rice is still refusing to admit fault about her lies about the Benghazi attack. When asked this morning on Meet the Press by David Gregory whether she had any regrets about appearing on four network news shows the Sunday after the 9/11/12 attacks that took the lives of four Americans and telling the nation that what happened was the result of a demonstration against a video, Rice said she had none:

David, no. Because what I said to you that morning, and what I did every day since, was to share the best information that we had at the time. The information I provided, which I explained to you, was what we had at the moment. It could change. I commented that this was based on what we knew on that morning, was provided to me and my colleagues, and indeed, to Congress, by the intelligence community. And that’s been well validated in many different ways since. And that information turned out, in some respects, not to be 100% correct. But the notion that somehow I or anybody else in the administration misled the American people is patently false. And I think that that’s been amply demonstrated.

What point is served by this rearguard defense of the indefensible? We long since learned that senior intelligence officials, including the CIA station chief, had contradicted the demonstration myth before Rice made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to convince Americans that what had happened was not an al-Qaeda terror attack. We know that the talking points were the result of a stormy battle involving the White House, the State Department, and the CIA that led to Rice being handed material that was more the product of the administration’s political needs than the truth. But rather than simply say she’s sorry and move on—a stance that could be easily forgiven since Rice was completely uninvolved in the series of bad decisions made by the State Department under the leadership of Hillary Clinton that led to the disaster—she continues to play the loyal soldier and to parse words in order to deny that she deceived the American people. But there is something more significant here than her state of denial that is as embarrassing as it is ludicrous.

Democrats and liberals who want to “move on” from Benghazi are right to the extent that this is a controversy rooted in a specific time and place rather than a possible ongoing threat to constitutional rule such as that demonstrated in the IRS scandal or the various instances of government spying on the press and the public. But the reason why the anger about Benghazi has never dissipated is due to statements such as that of Rice that feed the cynicism of an American people that only wanted the truth in the first place and would now settle for a full accounting that the administration still seems incapable of providing. Like Clinton’s infamous “what difference does it make?” retort when asked about these deceptions, Rice’s lack of regret demonstrates the arrogance of an administration that is unwilling to own up to its faults even if doing so would serve its interests.

Rice should have regrets about being shoved into the public square with a false cover story. As Gregory noted in a follow-up question, the lies almost certainly made it impossible for President Obama to nominate her to be secretary of state. And considering the follies committed by John Kerry—the man who got the job that was denied Rice—on Iran, the Middle East peace process, Syria, and the disastrous and humiliating “resets” with Russia—the nation should have some too. We’ll never know whether Rice would have been smart enough to avoid some of the traps set by Vladimir Putin, Iran, and the Palestinians, that Kerry has fallen into, but it’s not likely she could have done any worse.

But her thwarted ambition is a mere footnote to history. What is relevant is what this arrogant denial tells us about the animating spirit inside the bubble of the White House inner circle that surrounds President Obama. Just like their boss, officials like Rice seem to think what they believe to be their good intentions gives them a permanent hall pass to deceive and to fudge the truth. In their world, the president never makes a misstep, the economy is always on the rebound and threats to national security are always receding in the face of Obama’s magical personality. In that world, you never have to account to the American people for falsehoods or say you’re sorry.

That’s the same mentality that leads the president to deny that the IRS contretemps was a scandal, that he lied when he told the American people they could keep their insurance coverage and their doctors, or that ObamaCare is causing at least as much pain as it is doing good. The president’s second term is stuck in neutral because there is so much that should be regretted and redressed but he and his minions continue to tell us to not believe our lying eyes and ears. Susan Rice’s lack of regrets not only tells us about her out-of-kilter moral compass but why her boss has arrogantly doomed himself to lame-duck status so early in his second term.

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Defending Kerry While Blaming Israel

White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice has hit back at Israel for criticism from government ministers concerning recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a succession of tweets sent last night, Rice was at pains to defend Kerry’s record, yet she also didn’t hold back when it came to putting Kerry’s Israeli critics in their place. In one tweet she asserted, “Personal attacks in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable.” It might be tempting to read these statements as an attempt to manufacture another minor spat between the two countries–to put some daylight between the U.S. government and Israel, as some have argued was the strategy in the past. Yet, whether this is being done consciously or not, it creates a public perception so that, if and when negotiations fail, the Israeli government will be less able to direct the blame toward the Palestinians.

The alleged “personal attacks” in question focused on widespread criticism, certainly not restricted to the Israeli press or politicians, that came in response to the implicit threats that Kerry has voiced about anti-Israel boycotts. Speaking over the weekend, he had raised the possibility of an advancing boycott campaign against Israel in the event that the two sides fail to reach an agreement. In November of last year Kerry had made an even more extreme version of this implicit threat; talking about the prospect of talks failing, Kerry asked, “does Israel want a third intifada?”

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White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice has hit back at Israel for criticism from government ministers concerning recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a succession of tweets sent last night, Rice was at pains to defend Kerry’s record, yet she also didn’t hold back when it came to putting Kerry’s Israeli critics in their place. In one tweet she asserted, “Personal attacks in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable.” It might be tempting to read these statements as an attempt to manufacture another minor spat between the two countries–to put some daylight between the U.S. government and Israel, as some have argued was the strategy in the past. Yet, whether this is being done consciously or not, it creates a public perception so that, if and when negotiations fail, the Israeli government will be less able to direct the blame toward the Palestinians.

The alleged “personal attacks” in question focused on widespread criticism, certainly not restricted to the Israeli press or politicians, that came in response to the implicit threats that Kerry has voiced about anti-Israel boycotts. Speaking over the weekend, he had raised the possibility of an advancing boycott campaign against Israel in the event that the two sides fail to reach an agreement. In November of last year Kerry had made an even more extreme version of this implicit threat; talking about the prospect of talks failing, Kerry asked, “does Israel want a third intifada?”

If anything is “unacceptable” then it might be argued that it’s Kerry’s comments, not the backlash to them. In making these kind of remarks, Secretary Kerry may not be endorsing these moves against Israel, but he serves to legitimize them by suggesting that they are the natural response, only to be expected, if Israel won’t find a way to make a deal with the Palestinians. Indeed, one has to ask: if Kerry is serious about presenting the two sides with a fair offer then why the need for all these thinly veiled threats? If the deal genuinely offers Israel peace and security, we can be confident Israelis will jump at it. These threats would suggest Kerry knows he won’t be able to get the Palestinians to give the Israelis a fair deal, so with no carrot, it’s going to have to be all stick from here on in.

But Rice’s reaction is both suspect and telling. She has slammed the Israeli criticism that Kerry has received, but where is her response to the criticism Kerry receives from Palestinians? It’s not as if there isn’t enough of it. Senior Palestinian Authority officials regularly accuse Kerry of having a pro-Israel bias and Kerry’s visits to Ramallah are routinely met by public protests, although admittedly nothing on the scale of the Palestinian protests that greeted Obama when demonstrators trampled on pictures of the president, festooning with swastikas the billboards bearing his image. If Susan Rice was looking for a Twitter slanging match then that was quite the opportunity.

In making these comments, administration officials contribute to an atmosphere that will ultimately put Israel in the dock for the failure of the negotiation process. Talks appear to be stalling over the Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state. In every previous round of negotiations they have ended with the Palestinians walking and thus taking much of the blame for the failures of peace efforts. The administration has long been signaling that Israel better find a way to make sure the Palestinians don’t walk this time around, otherwise, this time it can expect to take the blame. By causing a stir over the backlash to Kerry’s comments, or by hyping-up their reaction to Israeli Defense Minister Yaalon’s criticism of Kerry’s strategy, the administration lays the groundwork for ensuring that Israel will be perceived internationally as the party that lacked good faith and ultimately undermined the peace process.    

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No Time to Waste in Pressuring Iran

When Haaretz reported last Friday that four major American Jewish groups agreed to a moratorium on advocacy for increased Iran sanctions at a White House meeting, there were those who expressed the opinion that the entire tale was a fake. The notion that AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would agree to pipe down about a measure the administration opposed despite their public support for it seemed far-fetched. The leak of the agreement to a left-wing newspaper was, in the view of some skeptics, a setup. That view was reinforced in the following 24 hours as both AIPAC and the AJC denied in absolute terms that they had ever made such a promise and reiterated their opposition to such a moratorium. But the statement made earlier this week by ADL head Abe Foxman confirming that he had agreed to suspend advocacy for more sanctions demonstrates that there was more to this than some thought.

Interestingly, Foxman insists that he continues to support toughening the economic pressure on Iran even while saying over the next month his group won’t urge senators to back the legislation that will make that possible. That such a normally stalwart opponent of appeasement of the anti-Semitic regime in Tehran would agree to such a “time-out” illustrates the difficulty of saying no to powerful figures like National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who reportedly was at the meeting. But as much as the whole affair is the epitome of inside baseball, Washington-style, it is worth examining the process by which the administration is seeking to spike the tough sanctions already approved by the House of Representatives. That the White House appears willing to pull out all the stops in a public and private campaign to spike further economic restrictions on doing business with Iran calls into question not only their priorities but the ultimate intent of this effort. Though Rice reportedly assured the Jewish groups that the president would not renege on his promise to stop Iran and wouldn’t ease existing sanctions without reciprocal progress from Tehran, their obsessive desire to avoid offending the ayatollahs is exactly the sort of thing that makes it unlikely that diplomacy can succeed.

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When Haaretz reported last Friday that four major American Jewish groups agreed to a moratorium on advocacy for increased Iran sanctions at a White House meeting, there were those who expressed the opinion that the entire tale was a fake. The notion that AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would agree to pipe down about a measure the administration opposed despite their public support for it seemed far-fetched. The leak of the agreement to a left-wing newspaper was, in the view of some skeptics, a setup. That view was reinforced in the following 24 hours as both AIPAC and the AJC denied in absolute terms that they had ever made such a promise and reiterated their opposition to such a moratorium. But the statement made earlier this week by ADL head Abe Foxman confirming that he had agreed to suspend advocacy for more sanctions demonstrates that there was more to this than some thought.

Interestingly, Foxman insists that he continues to support toughening the economic pressure on Iran even while saying over the next month his group won’t urge senators to back the legislation that will make that possible. That such a normally stalwart opponent of appeasement of the anti-Semitic regime in Tehran would agree to such a “time-out” illustrates the difficulty of saying no to powerful figures like National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who reportedly was at the meeting. But as much as the whole affair is the epitome of inside baseball, Washington-style, it is worth examining the process by which the administration is seeking to spike the tough sanctions already approved by the House of Representatives. That the White House appears willing to pull out all the stops in a public and private campaign to spike further economic restrictions on doing business with Iran calls into question not only their priorities but the ultimate intent of this effort. Though Rice reportedly assured the Jewish groups that the president would not renege on his promise to stop Iran and wouldn’t ease existing sanctions without reciprocal progress from Tehran, their obsessive desire to avoid offending the ayatollahs is exactly the sort of thing that makes it unlikely that diplomacy can succeed.

The conceit behind the drive to stop further sanctions is that adopting measures that will complete the work of halting the sale of Iranian oil—that pays for the regime’s nuclear venture—sends the wrong signal. The administration and its apologists and cheerleaders have fallen for the Iranian charm offensive led by its new President Hassan Rouhani hook, line, and sinker. Iran’s recent behavior, including its position at the first round of the reconvened P5+1 talks, was no different than past stands with regard to its “right” to enrich uranium or to hold onto to its existing stockpile of nuclear fuel. Yet opponents of further sanctions still claim that Iran is moving toward the West, even though they can point to no evidence, either in terms of diplomatic initiatives or statements from the country’s supreme leader, that back up this assertion. As such, they are engaged in a circular argument that holds no water.

It is not just that the existing sanctions—which were opposed by the administration and other liberal opponents of the current proposal—are the only thing that brought Iran back to the table at all. It is that by showing an unwillingness to raise the price of intransigence, President Obama is embarking on a diplomatic process with no clear end game. That plays right into the now-familiar Iranian strategy of dragging out such talks for months and even years, buying more time for its nuclear program to achieve its goal. If opponents of the administration are insisting on more sanctions now, it is not because they oppose diplomacy–though only a fool would think they had much of a chance given Iran’s behavior. Rather, it is because the strategy being charted by Washington, and on behalf of which they are seeking to enlist the support of pro-Israel groups, is one that is almost guaranteed to drag out the process to no useful end.

The key to understanding this issue is in knowing that time is the crucial factor. Every month wasted on inaction or feckless U.S. engagement brings the Iranians closer to realizing their ambition of obtaining a weapon or to achieving a nuclear capability that will render the use of force impossible. AIPAC and the AJC were right to want no part of such a path. The ADL, which in this case appears to have made a decision that prioritized keeping friendly relations with the White House over support for what it knew to be right, should rethink its decision to stay quiet, even if it is only for a crucial month or two.

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Barack Obama, Unilateralist

Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

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Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

This is billed by Rice as “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.” In fact it’s a more high-handed and unilateralist approach. How so? Because it rests on the assumption that the administration can choose to get involved only in the issues it has pre-determined beforehand are of interest, and that it can pursue a predetermined approach to those issues even if it flies in the face of reality and what our allies advocate.

This is a natural continuation of the president’s conceit that he can “end” wars by pulling U.S. troops out; in fact in Iraq he has re-started a war by pulling U.S. troops out. But it is part and parcel of Obama’s overweening self-regard that he imagines that his actions, and his actions alone, will determine what happens in far-off regions.

It hardly works that way. The struggle for democracy in Egypt or indeed across the Middle East–to take but one example–will not disappear simply because the administration chooses to ignore it. Nor will the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal simply because the administration wills it to happen.

If President Obama were actually listening to what U.S. allies in the Middle East want, he would be focusing on toppling Bashar Assad and doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranian nuclear program rather than engaging with the Iranian regime. Nor would he be loudly proclaiming his desire to disengage from the Middle East and never again to use force. Like his ill-considered timeline in Afghanistan, those are signals that encourage aggressors and discourage our friends. Which may be why both the Saudis and Israelis, different as they are, both are signaling their disenchantment with the administration’s policies.

Meanwhile Obama has been alienating France, Germany, Brazil, and other countries over alleged NSA spying. The U.S. may have a strong case for what it is doing, but even those of us who defend NSA actions have to admit they’re–yup–unilateralist. So who’s the unilateralist now, President Obama?

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Obama’s “Modest Strategy” Good For Putin

For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.

But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.

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For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.

But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.

This is a potential disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

The Egyptian military seems to have succeeded in not only ousting the Muslim Brotherhood government that threatened to turn the most populous Arab nation into an Islamist regime but in keeping the group from organizing a rebellion. Though the process by which they have done so is not easy to defend, they at least understood something the president and Rice seem not to have learned: that the struggle with the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. By taking out the Brotherhood, clamping down on terror in the Sinai, and squeezing Hamas in Gaza, the military has made the region safer. But they’ve gotten no thanks for this from Washington. Not only has Obama distanced the U.S. from Cairo and cut aid, Rice has now announced, via the front page of the Sunday New York Times, that what happens in Egypt isn’t all that important anyway.

While the Egyptian military will be loath to swap up-to-date U.S. hardware for Russian knockoffs, who can blame them for shopping around for new friends after the snubs they’ve received from President Obama?

Though his staff wants to save the president from being swamped by events in the Middle East, by putting all their chips on the slim hopes of an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran and the virtually non-existent chances of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, they have only set him up for more failure. Worse than that, by granting Putin a victory in Syria—where Russian and Iranian ally Bashar Assad looks more secure than ever thanks to Obama’s backing away from striking at his chemical-weapons stockpile—and setting him up to win back Egypt, President Obama has made the Middle East much less stable for U.S. allies like Israel and Arab nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. That’s a formula for exactly the kind of blow-up Rice and her buddies had hoped to spare the president.

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Obama’s Team of Bystanders

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power’s credibility is taking a bit of a hit this week. Power is a voluble proponent of the doctrine of R2P–responsibility to protect, which advocates military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Thus, when evidence mounted that the Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were committing massacres with chemical weapons, proponents of Syria intervention expected more than a tweet from Power. They didn’t get it–not yet, at least.

In early afternoon on Wednesday, Power wrote: “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.” The responses were predictable, typified by Irish journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes, who tweeted back: “When she was a journo and an academic @AmbassadorPower was pretty clear about genocidal acts like yesterday’s in Syria. Not so much now.”

In fact, more than just being “pretty clear” about such atrocities, Power was more than happy to name and shame Americans she thought insufficiently active in propelling the U.S. government to action. Her 2001 Atlantic essay “Bystanders to Genocide,” on the Clinton administration’s dawdling during the Rwandan genocide, makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Her eloquence and honesty on such matters were thought by some to be reason enough to celebrate her nomination to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to the UN–a Cabinet-level post in this administration.

Yet what Power may be realizing, and what the public should have understood long ago, is that Obama’s “team of rivals” is really a team of fig leaves. Hillary Clinton was not hired as secretary of state because Obama had suddenly come around to the advisability of liberal interventionism. She was hired because Obama wanted her out of the Senate where she could challenge his agenda. Instead, she was to be tied so closely to the president’s agenda so as to make it virtually impossible for her to undermine him.

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U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power’s credibility is taking a bit of a hit this week. Power is a voluble proponent of the doctrine of R2P–responsibility to protect, which advocates military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Thus, when evidence mounted that the Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were committing massacres with chemical weapons, proponents of Syria intervention expected more than a tweet from Power. They didn’t get it–not yet, at least.

In early afternoon on Wednesday, Power wrote: “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.” The responses were predictable, typified by Irish journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes, who tweeted back: “When she was a journo and an academic @AmbassadorPower was pretty clear about genocidal acts like yesterday’s in Syria. Not so much now.”

In fact, more than just being “pretty clear” about such atrocities, Power was more than happy to name and shame Americans she thought insufficiently active in propelling the U.S. government to action. Her 2001 Atlantic essay “Bystanders to Genocide,” on the Clinton administration’s dawdling during the Rwandan genocide, makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Her eloquence and honesty on such matters were thought by some to be reason enough to celebrate her nomination to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to the UN–a Cabinet-level post in this administration.

Yet what Power may be realizing, and what the public should have understood long ago, is that Obama’s “team of rivals” is really a team of fig leaves. Hillary Clinton was not hired as secretary of state because Obama had suddenly come around to the advisability of liberal interventionism. She was hired because Obama wanted her out of the Senate where she could challenge his agenda. Instead, she was to be tied so closely to the president’s agenda so as to make it virtually impossible for her to undermine him.

One of the targets of Power’s Atlantic piece was Susan Rice, who is portrayed as being nearly as cynical as her then-boss, President Bill Clinton. According to Power, Rice was more concerned about midterm elections than victims of the ongoing genocide. But Power quotes Rice declaring she learned her lesson: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” As the bodies pile up in Syria, there are certainly flames–but Rice is floating high above them from her perch as Obama’s national security advisor.

It is ironic to some degree that Rice’s promotion to national security advisor cleared the way for Power to take Rice’s old job. But the two shouldn’t be compared: when Rice was at the UN, she was so impolitic that her Russian and Chinese counterparts complained about her. She wasn’t the craven diplomat that the West nowadays deploys. She called a spade a spade–and called a thug a thug.

When the UN called an emergency meeting this week on the chemical weapons reports, Power was unavailable. Yet some perspective is in order: Power has given no indication that she has Rice’s innate toughness or reflex to defend Western values and interests. As Hillary Clinton might say, had Power been at her post when the meeting was called, what difference would it have made?

And the reason for that goes beyond the issue of hypocrisy. Yes, it’s bad form for Power to make a career out of shaming her countrymen for doing what she’s doing now. It has to do with why Rice has also been generally ineffective at getting the administration to take action. Rice promised her inaction on Rwanda would forever guide her perspective on future conflicts. That made it essential for Obama to bring her into the administration–not to allow her to pursue her objectives but to co-opt her and silence her by ensuring she couldn’t criticize the administration from the outside.

The same is probably true of Power. Obama knows that Samantha Power would love nothing more than to pick up her pen and take shots at his administration for his constantly moving “red line.” But as a representative of the administration who answers to the president, all she can do is tweet from undisclosed locations while her subordinates fill in for her at the UN.

Obama prefers to centralize decision-making as much as possible. This can be most dangerous on foreign policy, where his experience, interest, and frame of reference are weakest. It’s also true that the president is petty and thin-skinned, and does not handle criticism well. Hiring his critics to shut them up was thus a tactically brilliant maneuver, all the more so because the media inexplicably believed, and happily circulated, the ruse.

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Susan Rice’s Consolation Prize

The news that Susan Rice will be named to replace Tom Donilon as President Obama’s national security adviser is not surprising in the least–indeed, it was close to a sure thing as soon as Rice’s name was dropped from consideration to be secretary of state. But there is irony aplenty in this promotion, and it explains why the New York Times is wrong to cast the appointment as “a defiant gesture to Republicans.” The Times joins many commentators on the left in being completely confused by the complicated politics of l’affaire Rice, so it’s worth reviewing.

Rice’s stock began to drop because of her own attempt to raise her profile. When Hillary Clinton was permitted by the Obama administration to evade accountability for her failures that led to the Benghazi terror attack, the administration needed someone to go on the Sunday morning political talk shows and push false talking points to mislead the American people on the causes of the attack. Rice was happy to step in, hoping to prove herself to the Obama White House and increase her chances vis-à-vis John Kerry to succeed Clinton at Foggy Bottom. But the false talking points proved understandably controversial, and put Rice at the center of the storm. What happened next is what seems to have the Times so baffled.

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The news that Susan Rice will be named to replace Tom Donilon as President Obama’s national security adviser is not surprising in the least–indeed, it was close to a sure thing as soon as Rice’s name was dropped from consideration to be secretary of state. But there is irony aplenty in this promotion, and it explains why the New York Times is wrong to cast the appointment as “a defiant gesture to Republicans.” The Times joins many commentators on the left in being completely confused by the complicated politics of l’affaire Rice, so it’s worth reviewing.

Rice’s stock began to drop because of her own attempt to raise her profile. When Hillary Clinton was permitted by the Obama administration to evade accountability for her failures that led to the Benghazi terror attack, the administration needed someone to go on the Sunday morning political talk shows and push false talking points to mislead the American people on the causes of the attack. Rice was happy to step in, hoping to prove herself to the Obama White House and increase her chances vis-à-vis John Kerry to succeed Clinton at Foggy Bottom. But the false talking points proved understandably controversial, and put Rice at the center of the storm. What happened next is what seems to have the Times so baffled.

Rice or her allies floated her name as Obama’s choice to be the next secretary of state hoping to build momentum for her (though it’s possible she was actually Obama’s first choice). At the same time, Republicans in Congress were trying mightily to get the administration to answer for its failures in Libya and its decision to mislead the public on the attack. They were also hoping to get the media–which had been so embarrassingly in the tank during the fall election season that they were attacking Mitt Romney over Benghazi–to do their jobs and cover the story. Neither would play ball.

But then, they had a breakthrough. Lindsey Graham and John McCain threatened to attempt to block Rice’s nomination to State until they got answers. “I cannot imagine promoting anybody associated with Benghazi at this point,” Graham had said on CBS’s Face the Nation. It was likely a hollow threat, but the Hail Mary worked: the press grudgingly paid attention and the administration started engaging the GOP. The issue snowballed publicly when Obama gave a tetchy and overly defensive press conference that further piqued the interest of the press–and encouraged McCain and Graham to continue to press the issue of Rice’s nomination.

Graham didn’t actually mean he couldn’t imagine promoting anybody involved in the Benghazi episode. One of the officials who played a role in manipulating the Benghazi talking points that Rice repeated was State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who has just been named for a big administration promotion that requires Senate confirmation. Yet Graham issued a statement praising Nuland designed to speed her confirmation through the Senate. The point of what Graham was doing was to focus attention on Benghazi. Threatening Rice’s nomination was succeeding on that front, so he just continued doing so even though he probably wouldn’t have been able to stop Rice’s nomination if she were actually nominated.

So why did Obama drop Rice’s name from contention? Because the administration needed a scapegoat that wasn’t Hillary Clinton, whom he has been helping build support for a presidential run, and because the confirmation hearings for Rice would have forced the administration to talk more about Benghazi. Obama was hoping the issue would go away.

Graham’s bluff worked. But not before something coldly and typically Washington took place. When Rice became the center of controversy, Hillary Clinton saw an opportunity. She doesn’t get along with Rice, and didn’t want her to step in as the next secretary of state. So she began making her preference that Rice’s name be dropped from contention clear. Her friends and allies in the liberal media took the cue, and began assailing Rice in harshly personal terms far beyond anything Graham or McCain were saying. That gave Obama cover to ditch Rice.

Graham didn’t really mean it when he said he intended to stop Rice’s nomination, but the nomination was derailed anyway. Obama didn’t mean it when he stepped in to defend Rice, because he was merely trying to shut down the conversation and dropped Rice when that failed. In the end, hearings were held on Benghazi and more information came to light about the talking points, preventing both the Obama White House and Clinton from avoiding the controversy after all.

So promoting Rice to national security adviser isn’t a “defiant gesture” aimed at Republicans at all–Graham and McCain are only interested if the position requires Senate confirmation and thus enables them to control the conversation. It was never about stopping Rice; in fact, Graham and McCain would have been much happier had Obama gone through with Rice’s nomination to State and forced the public hearings.

Additionally, McCain and Graham tend to be pro-intervention on foreign policy, and would probably prefer Rice’s internationalist instincts to virtually anyone else the Democrats would be expected to appoint national security adviser. Clinton probably doesn’t care much either, since what she really wanted was to stop Rice’s nomination to State, and she did so. Rice deserved much better than the treatment she got from the Obama administration, but she probably understands that like the rest of this saga, that’s politics.

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Can Susan Rice Spur Syria Intervention?

President Obama is making important changes on his national security team, which will serve to elevate the status of both Susan Rice, slated to be the new national security adviser, and Samantha Power, who will be nominated to be the next UN ambassador. Both Rice and Power are known for their humanitarian interventionist viewpoints; they were widely seen as two of the key advocates for military action in Libya in 2011. Perhaps in their new positions they can make the case to Obama more effectively for greater American involvement in Syria where the situation continues to spiral downward.

The anti-Assad rebels appeared to have suffered a serious blow with the loss of the strategic town of Qusayr to a joint Syrian-Hezbollah offensive. Meanwhile, evidence continues to accumulate that Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons: Both Britain and France have added further facts on that score, with the French foreign minister reporting, in the words of one press account, that “samples of body fluids taken from victims in Syria and tested at a French laboratory — including urine samples carried out of Syria by French reporters — ‘prove the presence of sarin,’ a poisonous nerve gas.”

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President Obama is making important changes on his national security team, which will serve to elevate the status of both Susan Rice, slated to be the new national security adviser, and Samantha Power, who will be nominated to be the next UN ambassador. Both Rice and Power are known for their humanitarian interventionist viewpoints; they were widely seen as two of the key advocates for military action in Libya in 2011. Perhaps in their new positions they can make the case to Obama more effectively for greater American involvement in Syria where the situation continues to spiral downward.

The anti-Assad rebels appeared to have suffered a serious blow with the loss of the strategic town of Qusayr to a joint Syrian-Hezbollah offensive. Meanwhile, evidence continues to accumulate that Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons: Both Britain and France have added further facts on that score, with the French foreign minister reporting, in the words of one press account, that “samples of body fluids taken from victims in Syria and tested at a French laboratory — including urine samples carried out of Syria by French reporters — ‘prove the presence of sarin,’ a poisonous nerve gas.”

The use of chemical weapons–supposedly a “red line” for Obama–has also been further confirmed by the UN Human Rights Council, which finds in a new report that the conflict in Syria “has reached new levels of brutality.” According to the report: “Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. Many of these crimes were perpetrated as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations and constitute crimes against humanity.” The report also finds that anti-government forces have committed war crimes, while adding: “The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”

Considering that Power and to a lesser extent Rice have argued that the U.S. has a “responsibility to protect” populations subject to genocide or other war crimes, it would be disheartening indeed if the administration in which they serve at increasingly senior levels were to continue to do little as the list of atrocities in Syria pile up. Especially when there is growing support in the region for action. Just this week Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turkish academic and diplomat who is head of the 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. However much Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies would support such a step, they are not going to impose a no-fly zone on their own. That depends on American leadership, which so far has been conspicuously missing.

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The Benghazi Scandal Grows

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. 

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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. 

 2. We learned of a September 12 e-mail from Beth Jones, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who wrote to several key individuals in the State Department that she had a direct conversation with the Libyan ambassador. Ms. Jones wrote, “I told him [the Libyan ambassador] that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”

3. Asked about the role played by the YouTube video that the administration said had sparked the attack in Benghazi, Mr. Hicks told the House Oversight Committee, “The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya.” He added, “The video was not instigative of anything that was going on in Libya. We saw no demonstrations related to the video anywhere in Libya.”

4. When Mr. Hicks was asked his reaction to Ambassador Susan Rice’s televised account of the events in Benghazi–when she blamed the attacks on the YouTube video; repeatedly characterized it as a spontaneous demonstration; and insisted there was no involvement by terrorist elements–Hicks said he was “stunned,” that “my jaw dropped” and that he was “embarrassed.”

5. According to Hicks, Special Forces were “furious” when they were told to stand down during the Benghazi attack. “I will quote Lieutenant Colonel Gibson,” Hicks told the committee. “He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’” (Lt. Colonel Gibson, located in Tripoli, was ready to board a C-130 to go to help the Americans under attack.) The previous claim by others that “there was never a stand down order by anybody” was false, according to Hicks.

6. Mr. Hicks said that after a long and distinguished career, there was “a shift” in the way State Department officials treated him after he asked why Susan Rice had blamed the Benghazi attack on protests sparked by a YouTube video. 

“In hindsight, I think it began after I asked the question about Ambassador Rice’s statement on the TV shows,” Hicks said. He had asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones why Susan Rice had said the Benghazi attack stemmed from a demonstration. Jones said that she didn’t know, according to Hicks. “The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,” Hicks added.

Mr. Hicks went on to tell the committee that Ms. Jones gave a “blistering report” of his performance when he returned to the U.S. to attend the funeral of Ambassador Stevens, though he was given “no indication” there were issues with his work. “She even said she didn’t understand why anyone in Tripoli would want me to come back,” Hicks recalled. “I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer,” he said.

7. Mr. Hicks testified that he was instructed not to be personally interviewed by Representative Jason Chaffetz, who was visiting Libya to investigate what had happened. He also said he had “never,” in any other circumstance, been told not to talk with Members of Congress investigating an event. And when a lawyer was excluded from one meeting with intelligence officers because he lacked security clearances, Hicks received a furious call from then-chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Mills. According to Hicks, Ms. Mills called him directly. Mr. Hicks described her as being ”very upset.” Mills, Hicks said, demanded to know what was said in the meeting. 

8. Those testifying yesterday said they felt that the investigation of the Benghazi attack by the State Department, the Accountability Review Board, was inadequate because many people who were directly involved in the attacks–including those testifying as well as Secretary of State Clinton–were not interviewed. “They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,” said Eric Nordstrom.

Add to all this the reporting of Steve Hayes of the Weekly Standard. Thanks to his story, we know that the early talking points produced to explain the Benghazi attacks were accurate–but after the State Department and the White House altered them, the American people were presented with an utterly false account of events.

As I wrote earlier this week, early (accurate) references to “Islamic extremists” were removed. Early (accurate) references to “attacks” were changed to “demonstrations.” And there was no mention of any YouTube video in any of the many drafts of the talking points — even though everyone from the president of the United States to the secretary of state to the U.N. ambassador blamed the attacks on the “awful, “heinous,” “offensive,” “reprehensible,” “disgusting” and “widely disseminated” video. Except that we now know the video was irrelevant to what happened.

It sounds like a scandal to me. 

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The Return of Clintonian Politics

Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information. His article was built around the emails released by a group of Republican House committee chairmen after a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 anniversary attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Those emails detailed the efforts of the administration to craft talking points that downplayed or omitted information the administration already knew about the role of Islamic terrorist actors in the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.

The resulting talking points were designed to mislead the American public about what happened, because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership at Foggy Bottom was marked by negligence and incompetence, and the new talking points were written to exonerate her. But Hayes provided a key piece of information: names. Specifically, he revealed the authors of some of those emails. As a result, it’s far easier to piece together what happened. Hayes explains that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns that the original talking points too accurately portrayed the incompetence at the highest levels of State. Hayes continues:

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Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information. His article was built around the emails released by a group of Republican House committee chairmen after a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 anniversary attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Those emails detailed the efforts of the administration to craft talking points that downplayed or omitted information the administration already knew about the role of Islamic terrorist actors in the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.

The resulting talking points were designed to mislead the American public about what happened, because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership at Foggy Bottom was marked by negligence and incompetence, and the new talking points were written to exonerate her. But Hayes provided a key piece of information: names. Specifically, he revealed the authors of some of those emails. As a result, it’s far easier to piece together what happened. Hayes explains that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns that the original talking points too accurately portrayed the incompetence at the highest levels of State. Hayes continues:

In an attempt to address those concerns, CIA officials cut all references to Ansar al Sharia and made minor tweaks. But in a follow-up email at 9:24 p.m., Nuland wrote that the problem remained and that her superiors—she did not say which ones—were unhappy. The changes, she wrote, did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership,” and State Department leadership was contacting National Security Council officials directly. Moments later, according to the House report, “White House officials responded by stating that the State Department’s concerns would have to be taken into account.” One official—Ben Rhodes, The Weekly Standard is told, a top adviser to President Obama on national security and foreign policy—further advised the group that the issues would be resolved in a meeting of top administration officials the following morning at the White House.

As I’ve written in the past, there is simply no way around Clinton’s failure to address security needs, her dismissal or ignorance of threats on the ground, and the general chain-of-command disorganization and bureaucratic confusion that prevailed during her tenure at State. But Clinton also wants to run for president, presumably, or at least have the option open to her. So her staff demanded the White House tell the public a different story, and the White House complied. (The mainstream media comes out of this looking ever worse, by the way.)

What came next wasn’t very surprising to anyone who has endured the brand of politics practiced by the Clintons. Though it was obviously on Clinton to explain what had just happened, she didn’t want to be within a mile of accountability. So Clinton kept silent and the administration sent out Susan Rice to deliver the misleading talking points on the Sunday shows. That proved a setback to Rice–who should have seen the whole thing coming a mile away–in her quest to succeed Clinton when the latter stepped aside after the election. But Clinton wants to be president and doesn’t want Rice elevating her stature and developing her own power base, so Clinton’s allies in the media fairly brazenly sabotaged Rice’s sputtering nomination.

As Clinton gears up to attempt to return to the White House, the Benghazi episode is worth keeping in mind as a reminder of the Clintonian politics of personal destruction and ruthless dishonesty that would surely return with her. But the Benghazi revelations weren’t the only such reminder in the news recently. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry drew some attention for cutting a promo for the network lamenting the lack of a “collective” notion of child-rearing, suggesting that “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”

This generated the attention MSNBC was looking for, since it was creepy and mildly totalitarian, and people seemed genuinely surprised that this was the image the network wanted to project of its own programming. (If the public actually watched MSNBC they would probably be less surprised, but they don’t.) Yet if Harris-Perry’s Orwellian idea of who your children belong to sounded familiar, it should: as Jonah Goldberg wrote in a 2007 column, Hillary Clinton once said that “As adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child. … For that reason, we cannot permit discussions of children and families to be subverted by political or ideological debate.”

Goldberg protested:

But here’s the thing: There really is such a thing as somebody else’s child. I don’t want to live in a country where there’s no such thing as somebody else’s child, because that means there’s no such thing as my child. And the fact is, my child is mine and nobody else’s (save, of course, for her mother). Almost as important, I don’t want to live in a country where I am a “subversive” simply by offering political or ideological debate against this vision.

That objection to Clinton’s worldview was relevant then and is relevant now. Clinton is popular largely because she has stayed out of the partisan fray and enjoyed the approval ratings shared by secretaries of state from both parties (though a lower approval rating than some of her predecessors). But if and when Clinton runs for president again, it’s worth remembering what brand of politics she’ll bring with her.

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John Kerry, Secretary of Retrenchment

An admiring portrait of now-former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New York Times (is there any other kind of portrait of Clinton in the Times?) over the weekend is in some ways a follow-up to a comment let slip by Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, last week. Kerry told the Boston Globe that President Obama called and offered him the job a full week before Susan Rice dropped her embattled bid for the post and withdrew her name from consideration.

If that’s true–if Obama really always wanted the dour and pliable Kerry over the sharp, independent and tough Rice–the Times profile of Clinton helps explain why. Clinton, according to the Times, was too much of an interventionist for the Obama White House. This insight illuminates the Kerry selection: John Kerry can give you a thousand reasons not to do something. Kerry and Obama both believe it looks thoughtful to appear aloof, uninterested, bored. Clinton and Rice, on the other hand, are always in motion. Kerry will be quite the change of pace, if his statements during his confirmation hearings are any indication, as the Washington Times notes:

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An admiring portrait of now-former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New York Times (is there any other kind of portrait of Clinton in the Times?) over the weekend is in some ways a follow-up to a comment let slip by Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, last week. Kerry told the Boston Globe that President Obama called and offered him the job a full week before Susan Rice dropped her embattled bid for the post and withdrew her name from consideration.

If that’s true–if Obama really always wanted the dour and pliable Kerry over the sharp, independent and tough Rice–the Times profile of Clinton helps explain why. Clinton, according to the Times, was too much of an interventionist for the Obama White House. This insight illuminates the Kerry selection: John Kerry can give you a thousand reasons not to do something. Kerry and Obama both believe it looks thoughtful to appear aloof, uninterested, bored. Clinton and Rice, on the other hand, are always in motion. Kerry will be quite the change of pace, if his statements during his confirmation hearings are any indication, as the Washington Times notes:

“I’ve had personal conversations prior to being nominated as secretary with [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, which indicated a Russian willingness to in fact see President Assad leave, but they have a different sense of the timing and manner of that.”

He added that he hopes to use his new stature as secretary of state “to really take the temperature of these different players.”…

“China is cooperating with us now on Iran,” Mr. Kerry said. “I think there might be more we could perhaps do with respect to North Korea.”

“There could be more we could do in other parts of the Far East, and hopefully we can build those relationships that will further that transformation,” he added. “We make progress. It’s incremental. You know, it’s a tough slog. And there just isn’t any single magic way to approach it.”

As this shows, Kerry has great plans to tell you about progress you didn’t know we were making at the State Department. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. In fact, Kerry believes this of his time in Washington, too. “I accomplished a lot,” Kerry told the Globe. “A lot more than people know.” And his assurance that the Russian government wants Assad out also, but they just have a “different sense of the timing” is classic Kerry; it’s not technically untrue to say that that the difference between now and never is a “sense of the timing.” But that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

Yet there is an argument to be made that Kerry is simply being realistic, and will actually helm a much diminished foreign policy apparatus. If diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had some sobering words about that rock:

The Army would be forced to slash its ranks by an additional 100,000 soldiers over 10 years if the process called sequestration went into effect, Panetta said in an interview with USA TODAY. That reduction would be in addition to the 80,000 soldiers it plans to shed over the next five years to a force of about 490,000. The Marine Corps will drop about 20,000 troops under the current plan, which calls on the Pentagon to reduce spending by $487 billion over the next decade.

Congress has until March 1 to reach a deal to stop the cuts, which were created in a summer 2011 deal between Congress and President Obama to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

“We are the world’s most powerful military, and we use that to promote peace and stability in the world,” Panetta said. “It would be a shameful act of irresponsibility if Congress just stood to the side and let sequester take place. It would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power.”

The story doesn’t make it clear, but that sequester, and its attendant cuts to the military, was an idea cooked up by the Obama White House during negotiations with GOP leadership. Consequently, Hillary Clinton’s interventionist advocacy might have done much to elevate Kerry as Obama’s preferred second-term secretary of state.

Obama, it seems, was tired of being challenged for his inaction, and tired of having people around him who saw the world differently. But even more so, Obama understood he might have had more use for an active secretary of state if he were going to give the military the tools to back up the sense of idealism about American’s role in the world that a Hillary Clinton or a Susan Rice values, but which someone like John Kerry is happy to make do without.

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“What Difference Does it Make?” Plenty

As Seth noted earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her long-awaited congressional testimony about Benghazi with excuses and an attempt to misdirect the public about what the administration knew about the incident and when it knew it. But while Clinton happily listened to fawning praise from the Democratic members of the Senate committee this morning, she lost her cool when one senator pressed her closely to account for the false story that had been put out in the days following the attack.

Senator Ron Johnson pointed out that accurate information about the assault that would have easily corrected the misconception, promoted by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and others, that the attack was merely a protest about a film rather than a terrorist attack was available at the time. Clinton not only refused to answer that question in a straightforward matter, but snapped, “What difference does it make?” about the whole matter of the false account. She then attempted to insinuate that there was still some doubt about the matter.

The answer to her question is clear. An administration that sought, for political purposes, to give the American people the idea that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and was effectively out of commission had a clear motive during a presidential campaign to mislead the public about Benghazi. The fact that questions are still unanswered about this crime and that Clinton and President Obama seem more interested in burying this story along with the four Americans that died is an outrage that won’t be forgotten.

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As Seth noted earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her long-awaited congressional testimony about Benghazi with excuses and an attempt to misdirect the public about what the administration knew about the incident and when it knew it. But while Clinton happily listened to fawning praise from the Democratic members of the Senate committee this morning, she lost her cool when one senator pressed her closely to account for the false story that had been put out in the days following the attack.

Senator Ron Johnson pointed out that accurate information about the assault that would have easily corrected the misconception, promoted by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and others, that the attack was merely a protest about a film rather than a terrorist attack was available at the time. Clinton not only refused to answer that question in a straightforward matter, but snapped, “What difference does it make?” about the whole matter of the false account. She then attempted to insinuate that there was still some doubt about the matter.

The answer to her question is clear. An administration that sought, for political purposes, to give the American people the idea that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and was effectively out of commission had a clear motive during a presidential campaign to mislead the public about Benghazi. The fact that questions are still unanswered about this crime and that Clinton and President Obama seem more interested in burying this story along with the four Americans that died is an outrage that won’t be forgotten.

While Clinton gave, as she has before, lip service to the idea that she took responsibility for the tragedy, throughout her testimony she demonstrated that she regarded the whole idea of accountability as a detail to be shrugged off or pigeonholed along with internal government reports about the matter. Her attitude, when not listening to paeans to her service and frequent trips abroad, seemed to betray her belief that not only were questions about Benghazi unimportant but that she knew the mainstream press would continue to give her a pass for her failures.

The problem here is not just what she considers an irrelevant question from Johnson or a mere “difference of opinion”–as she characterized Senator John McCain’s scathing attack on her record on the issue–but a belief that four dead Americans in Benghazi was really not such an earth-shaking event. Her consistent talking point seemed to be that the committee shouldn’t bother itself trying to find out what happened and why and who was responsible for the mistakes that led to the deaths, but merely to “move on”—to steal a phrase made popular during her husband’s presidency. That’s why she still won’t say who changed the public talking points about Benghazi that led to Rice’s lies and why they were altered.

That’s been the key to understanding the administration’s desire to treat its lies about Benghazi as somehow unworthy of further investigation. In Hillary’s world, lies don’t matter as long as it’s her side telling them. That’s not a standard that she and other Democrats would apply to any Republican. As McCain pointed out, the American people deserve an honest account of events that gets the facts straight.

Senator Rand Paul rightly pointed out that her failure of leadership ought to have led to her dismissal. Saying that the State Department gets lots of cables and she can’t be expected to read them all is not the sort of arrogant answer a Senator Hillary Clinton would have accepted from a Republican administration.

“What difference does it make” is an answer that ought to hang over Hillary Clinton for the rest of her public career. It is just one more indication that what happened after Benghazi in the State Department was akin to a cover up. Should Clinton run for president in 2016, this is a story that won’t go away. Nor should it. 

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