We still don’t know exactly what happened between the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the White House as Americans in Libya requested support for Ambassador Stevens and his team in their final hours, and we almost certainly won’t before the election.
But that doesn’t do the administration much good. As various departments and officials leak to save their careers and retaliate against rivals, grenades keep getting lobbed and emails and memos keep getting leaked. The result is that the attack in Benghazi isn’t fading out of the news. As the last undecided voters make up their minds, the media outlets following this story with the greatest attention keep getting enough ammunition to keep the story alive and force the rest of the media to acknowledge the story, and that doesn’t help a White House simultaneously wrestling with a close election and a massive mutant storm hurtling at the East Coast.
President Obama took office vowing to calm the seas and cool the earth; he is running for re-election in a world gone wild. What the White House wants and needs from Libya is no news at all; it needs for the people there to be quietly minding their business and rebuilding their land. It doesn’t need armed bands and pitched battles and massive assaults on American officials and posts in the city it intervened to save.
The drip drip drip of new revelations, however, is the worst kind of news. Even though many of the new stories are minor, and some contain information that is actively helpful to the White House, anything that keeps this story alive makes the President’s re-election just a little bit tougher.
Incumbents have two ways to use the foreign scene in a campaign. They can talk about a world of serenity and calm, as Bill Clinton did in 1996. Or they can argue that in a world of tumult and upheaval, the experienced hand is the wisest choice: that is what Franklin Roosevelt did to win an unprecedented third term in 1940.
President Obama based his campaign on his success in calming the troubled waters overseas. He is liquidating wars, not starting them. He is cooling the hot anger in the Islamic world. He is promoting peace, reconciling adversaries, giving peace a chance.
He could have run as a safe pair of hands in a scary world. He could have said that the terrorists are out their, plotting against us night and day. That our enemies are trying to win over the masses to launch a new clash of civilizations. That the situation in Iran presents the United States with its biggest challenge since the fall of the Soviet Union. In that kind of world, who can you trust? Obviously, the campaign could have said, an experienced man, tough enough to kill bin Laden, but deft enough to reach out to moderates in the Middle East. No gaffe-prone challenger would be safe in these troubled times.
But the Obama administration believes that civilianizing American political discourse is necessary for Democrats to do well over the long haul, and to shift resources from the defense budget to domestic priorities. Talk of threats and terrorist enemies appalls and disheartens the Democratic base. The President therefore decided to run as the man who built peace and, if given four more years, would build that much more.
He therefore needs for the world to look calm. Anything that undercuts that narrative undercuts his campaign. This is the most important problem Benghazi creates for him: it suggests a genuinely poisonous alternative narrative that the President in his naive eagerness to spread democracy and build bridges to moderates opened the door to radicals and then failed to deal with the threat they posed.
The rise of this alternative perception is probably why the President has been losing his advantage on foreign policy in the post-debate polls. The MSM has not pursued the Benghazi story with anything like the single minded pack journalism feeding frenzy that would undoubtedly have taken place if something comparable had happened, say, in October 2004; nevertheless there has been just enough real news (and Fox and the blogosphere have just enough impact) to keep the story in public view.
President Obama needs Benghazi to go away. Even with hurricanes and tsunamis it appears unlikely to do so; count this as another factor that has risen up to complicate what once looked like a relatively smooth campaign to renew President Obama’s White House lease.