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Right-Wingers Have Responded to Benghazi by Doing Exactly What They Warned Democrats Against Doing After 9/11

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The differences between the institutional right's reaction to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden and this week's capture of one of the masterminds of the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi reveal a tremendous amount about how unserious and contrived the entire Benghazi industrial complex really is. In fact, almost nothing about the right's renewed Benghazi obsession—not the glossy images, not the branding, not the fundraising—bespeaks a genuine belief that the Obama administration engaged in a scandalous coverup or otherwise discredited itself.

And yet these same conservatives take great offense at any suggestion that any increment of the infinite Benghazi loop isn't entirely above board: This is just an appropriate way for an opposition party to adjudicate the administration's handling of an attack that killed four Americans.

As much as I hate to assume, even for the purposes of argument or thought experiment, that they mean what they say, we unfortunately have a very complete historical record of partisan responses to another major September 11 terrorist attack—"Proto-Benghazi," if you will—and the contrast is just incredibly stark.

In some ways the record is a reminder that Democrats were cowed into impotence for most of the aughts. But mostly it just puts a fine point on how contemptible the right's response to Benghazi has been.

This first occurred to me Tuesday afternoon watching Fox News cover Ahmed Abu Khattala's apprehension, throughout which I was reminded that he'd escaped capture for 642 days. It wasn't hard to recall how dismissive Fox was about bin Laden's escape and disappearance for the entirety of the Bush presidency, which echoed Bush's own nonchalance. But in case they're wondering, 642 days is only 2,046 fewer days than the 2,688 days between 9/11/2001 and 1/20/2009, when Bush officially left office.

But the 642 day complaint didn't begin and end on Fox News. Here's a quote from the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Senator Ron Johnson, who elicited the famous "what difference at this point does it make" quote from an exasperated Hillary Clinton, had a different, but equally puzzling response.

"This is good news. I'm glad that we finally—you know, someone is at least being brought to justice on Benghazi .... We should bring all those individuals to justice first. But also we need to hold accountable those individuals at the State Department that allowed this to happen," he said.

You can slice and dice this a bunch of ways. If accountability means locking people up in Guantanamo, then I suppose the Bush administration held people accountable for 9/11. If accountability means invading a totally unrelated country, then it did an excellent job. But as far as bureaucratic accountability goes, nobody was held accountable for 9/11 in any way whatsoever, and Democratic senators weren't so incautious as to claim the Bush administration "allowed this to happen."

Rather, the main knock against Bush—similar to the main knock against Hillary Clinton—is that he should have been aware of the attack and better situated to prevent it. This wasn't hindsight talking. It was based on his administration's official policy of de-prioritizing counter-terrorism, and the revelation that he'd received a daily intelligence briefing, titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S."

The Benghazi version of the daily briefing, such as it exists, is a series of diplomatic cables from Ambassador Chris Stevens (and one in particular) detailing the declining situation in Libya, which Clinton claims she never received. Republicans were generally unperturbed that Bush missed the system blinking red, but some of them now argue that Clinton's lapse "should preclude her from ever being considered as commander in chief.”

The crux of the Republicans' Benghazi scandal, though, isn't about preparedness or accountability but about response. Specifically that the administration altered its talking points to execute the world's most befuddled coverup. If you divorce this complaint from the conspiracy-stoking purpose it actually serves, it's incredibly bizarre. But it's also of almost no consequence.

By contrast, the Bush administration spent two years ginning up talking points to suggest that Iraq was responsible for 9/11 in order to launch an unrelated nine-year war, which, among many other things, drained resources that could have been used to capture the actual perpetrators of 9/11.

Over time, Democrats developed a coherent story about the Bush administration's legacy, from before 9/11 through everything that came after, and it served them well politically in the later part of the last decade. In a way, they stood back and let the whole mess just sink the Republican party. But before that Dems didn’t make a big show of calling for scalps over “allowing 9/11 to happen,” but rather rallied together with Republicans against the people who actually did it. Even years later, after the 9/11 Commission, they didn’t cast their committee members as heroes seeking truth from an administration involved in a coverup, or talk about how it disqualified people from office, or constantly throw the people killed on 9/11 at Republicans’ feet, or say that Bush’s “weakness” invited the attack. Amazingly, Bush was able to run for re-election on the conceit that he'd kept America safe, with no asterisk to connote the 3,000 people who died his first year in office. Dems’ major response was to pass the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations through legislation, while Republicans used 9/11 in campaign ads for themselves.

The progressions are almost mirror images of each other. As I said, part of that is that Democrats were an unusually weak opposition back then. I don't think the precedent they set was appropriate, or should apply to Obama and Clinton, just like I don't think shouting "these colors don't bleed!" is a satisfactory answer to anything non-laundry related. But it should be possible to strike a reasonable balance, to interrogate and impose accountability for things like 9/11 and Benghazi, including political accountability, without veering into ugly opportunism. Treating every iterative development as further evidence of a shapeless conspiracy to gin up a reactionary political base doesn't come close to that balance. It isn't even really responsive.