Nothing demonstrates the political bankruptcy of congressional Republicans better than their continued effort to spin the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya into some sort of political gold. The exercise has become more than a little pathetic.
We know what happened. We know that Stevens and other brave Americans put their lives on the line in hopes of accomplishing something important. We know, as they knew, that such risks are inherent in the job they undertook. We know that once the attack was launched, there was nothing the United States could do militarily to intervene. And we now know that the attack was to some degree pre-meditated, with very plausible links to al Qaida.
Yet more than a year later, Republicans continue to try to milk the tragedy for attention and political advantage over both President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should she run for president in 2016. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa just forced eyewitnesses to testify to his committee, ignoring warnings that doing so may compromise prosecutions. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is demanding a joint committee to investigate a case that has already been investigated by at least four committees and a blue-ribbon State Department panel.
Let’s contrast that with the way that official Washington handled the far more deadly — and far more badly bungled — truck bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks at the Beirut airport on Oct. 23, 1983, which killed 241 American military personnel asleep in their beds and remains the single deadliest day in Marine Corps history since the assault on Iwo Jima:
1.) We knew the Beirut attack was coming, and that a car or truck bomb would be the likely mechanism. Six months earlier, a car bomb that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, and intel sources warned repeatedly of attacks on the Marine facility As a later Pentagon investigation documented, “from August 1983 to the 23 October attack, the USMNF was virtually flooded with terrorist attack warnings.”
2.) Despite those warning signs, we did little or nothing to defend our Marines on the ground. The flat, open terrain of the airport was impossible to defend, and our troops had been stripped of the means to even try. On the theory that they were there as symbols of peace, Marine sentries carried weapons that were not loaded, which meant when the attack came, they couldn’t shoot the suicide bomber as he drove past them. Security infrastructure for the base consisted of barbed-wire fences that the bomber merely drove through. As the Pentagon report concluded, the force “was not trained, organized, staffed, or supported to deal effectively” with the threat.
3.) Responsibility went right to the very top. Years later, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger revealed that he had personally begged President Reagan to withdraw the Marines from the airport because they were accomplishing nothing there except to serve as a target, but Reagan refused. As Weinberger told PBS, “… you have a force that was almost a sitting duck in one of the most dangerous spots in the Mideast, and therefore one of the most dangerous spots in the world, unable to protect itself. It was a disaster waiting to happen.”
So what happened in the aftermath of the deaths of 241 Americans?
Democrats who then controlled the U.S. House, just as Republicans do now, didn’t use the tragedy to depict Reagan as a coward. They didn’t seize it as an opportunity to destroy his presidency. They didn’t drag Weinberger before Congress to testify about his warnings to Reagan. Congressional hearings were conducted not in front of TV cameras to maximize the opportunity for preening and pandering, but behind closed doors to protect intelligence sources and maximize fact-finding.
By any rational measure, everything about the Beirut barracks bombing, from the degree of ineptitude to the ultimate death toll, was Benghazi written much, much larger. Yet the converse is true about the effort to politicize the two events. Part of that difference can be attributed to the way media have changed in the last 30 years, but most of it reflects an eroded sense of proportion and mission among too many of today’s politicians.