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Will the Benghazi Debacle Cost Obama the Election?

The smoke surrounding the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi has still not cleared, though it has been almost a month since our ambassador and three other Americans were murdered there. Yesterday’s hearing in Washington provided more heat than light, which is no surprise given that we are less than a month from a national election.

But the partisan coverage of the hearing could not disguise a couple of basic facts. First, it’s clear that the people on the ground in Libya weren’t getting the support that they wanted from Washington, and were unhappy about it. Second, the administration’s descriptions of what happened have never been very clear and have contributed to the confusion still surrounding this terrible tragedy.

I have a lot of sympathy for people in the State Department trying to handle security issues of this kind. There are hundreds of U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world, each with a very different security profile, and each facing different challenges. Partly because Congress has never adequately funded the State Department, management structures and resources are limited. Bad decisions inevitably get made.

Having traveled with the State Department in many countries where the security situation was not good, I have nothing but the highest respect for the people who have protected U.S. diplomats and others.

Libya looks like it was a perfect storm for the administration. A humanitarian intervention that never had a lot of support in the United States had not only failed to create a peaceful and stable democratic Libya; it was also increasingly clear that al-Qaeda and other terror groups were becoming much stronger in the chaos following the U.S.-led attack on Qaddafi. This political problem seems to have made it more difficult for the administration to face the full implications of the deteriorating security situation in Libya. And there was certainly no appetite for a fuller public discussion of the Libya mess in the weeks before an election.

It is not clear whether these considerations influenced efforts to keep U.S. security at a lower level in the country. That would genuinely be an explosive scandal. However, from the Obama administration’s point of view, the discussion of Libya these days is a bad thing. It seems clearer and clearer that the critics of the Libyan intervention had a better understanding of the risks and costs than the supporters.

And the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Libya also undermines the narrative the administration has tried to promote: that thanks to its intelligent and thoughtful policies terrorism is on its last legs.

To the extent that the administration hoped to turn American attention away from the Middle East, the events of 9/11/12 have frustrated that goal. This is unlikely to be a foreign policy election, but it looks as if the president’s advantage in foreign policy will continue to erode through election day. It remains to be seen whether that will have a material impact on this very close race.

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