With a crucial second presidential debate looming, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fell on her sword over the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans when terrorists stormed the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya a month ago.
“I take responsibility,” she told CNN. “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world (at) 275 posts.”
She also went out of her way to immunize President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden against any claims they knew about the threats against the ambassador and the demands for additional security, which congressional hearings revealed. At last Thursday’s debate, Biden claimed “we weren’t told” about requests for more security at the consulate.
“The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals,” Secretary Clinton said.
And if there was any doubt about it, she made the connection to election-year politics explicit. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she said.
Indeed. Both sides have been guilty of “gotcha” and obfuscation, respectively. Republican candidate Mitt Romney embarrassed himself by jumping to condemn the president’s policies before the dust had cleared. The administration went into damage-control mode, sending out UN Ambassador Susan Rice and others to claim the attack was the result of a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video when it was becoming increasingly clear this was a planned terrorist operation.
For the administration, the attack undercut its claim to have neutralized Al Qaeda, while Republicans have framed the whole incident as part of a bigger narrative about the collapse of President Obama’s Middle East policy. Republican claims and the administration’s own blunders in handling the crisis have eroded the public’s approval of the president’s foreign policy.
I think the broader GOP narrative of “failure” in the Middle East is a stretch—it’s hard to know what we actually can influence in such a fluid, troubled area. And the president will have to address Libya at Tuesday’s debate, or at next Monday’s debate on foreign policy. If he’s asked about it, I’d guess he will take responsibility; he almost has to.
But now that Hillary—who may run for president in 2016 when this is ancient history—has taken the fall first, it could cushion the blow for her boss. This is yet one more thing President Obama will owe to her and former President Bill Clinton, who are rapidly collecting IOUs from the current occupant of the Oval Office.