Sunday, October 14, 2012

The VP debate: Part II (Libya)

I think this issue of the American Consulate debacle in Libya, which figured in last Thursday's VP debate, will be an important one in the remainder of the campaign. Congress is already roiled in investigations of the issue.

Surely there was a failure of the intelligence community -- once again! -- on this one. The consequences were not as great as on 9/11 of course, but grim nevertheless. Even worse was the failure of Obama -- once again! -- to take a situation seriously. A furrowed brow and a very "thoughtful" response was not enough.

Joe Biden tried to make things look better in the debate by saying that Congress had cut a lot of money requested for security. I think he mentioned $300 million but that figure didn't appear in the transcript I read, since I think it was an "interruption". Rep. Darryl Issa (R, CA), appearing on Bill Maher's RealTime show (broadcast the next day), claims that the cuts from the request were bipartisan, with essentially the same number of Dems voting for them as Republicans. Also, it seems that the request for additional security was for the Embassy in Tripoli, not for the Consulate in Benghazi.

Of course, we know that all of Congress has been lead around by the nose by the GOP budget-cutters; the State Department appropriations are pretty easy targets. (The Republicans look down of the State Department as sort of effete internationalist do-gooders, not real fighters like the Defense folks.) Nevertheless, Obama has to defuse this issue since Romney & Co. are making competence a big issue in the campaign, and saying that the administration was at the mercy of the intelligence community does not seem all that competent. When Romney says "We can do better" that is probably exactly true, since basically a failure, no matter how explicable, is always worse than doing better. Whether Romney can, in fact, do better remains to be seen -- a hopeful claim is verbally hard to dismiss.

Since Romney will undoubtedly launch some attack on this issue in the next debate (and certainly in the final one devoted to foreign policy),  Obama will have to come up with something about the Libyan attack that will be plausible and, even more important, that will sound telling and convincing. I'm not sure that is possible. The intelligence community is pretty much independent and self-sustaining. If, in fact, it did not see Al-Qaeda as threatening in Libya, and did not immediately see that the actual attacks were planned by terrorists, that is their failure; however, it will be hard, in a public debate, for Obama to cast that blame without sharing in it. Nuances and legalisms don't go over well on TV; if he claims to be dependent on his intelligence briefings, that can be seen as a weakness and lack of executive strength and acumen -- something that many people, rightly or wrongly, see as Romney strengths.

Perhaps Obama can explain the inherent danger of a diplomatic posting in an unstable country such as Libya. Perhaps he can quote the many diplomats who say that they don't like to conduct their business from within a "fortress mentality", where anything they do, or any place they go, can be nixed by the security detail. Perhaps he can add up the number of troops or private contractors that would be needed to secure all of our 200 plus embassies and consulates, and pull up some quotes from Republicans about the need to spend more on tanks and aircraft carriers than on diplomacy. Whatever, he must come up with something before the debate or he will -- once again! -- pay dearly for his lapse.

Oh, one last thing. Bill Maher had a great quip about the first Presidential Debate: "Liberals were freaking out.. borderline suicidal -- which is tough on them: when you lock yourself in the garage with the Prius running -- nothing happens!"

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