Hillary’s Benghazi Problem

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Fair or not, Benghazi is not going away, and Hillary and Co. will have to deal with the persistent notion she is untrustworthy leading up to the general election. (Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I keep reading that notions of Hillary Clinton being an unlikable and untrustworthy candidate are overblown. Poet Erica Jong not long ago wrote a piece in defense of Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness, though with all due respect to Jong’s artistry, her op-ed was almost sickeningly apologetic on her (Hillary’s) behalf. At one point, she even rationalized that Clinton would not go to war unnecessarily because she is a grandmother, and later, in closing, asked rhetorically, “Whom do you trust if you don’t trust your grandmother?” This line of reasoning is eerily and insultingly reminiscent of a post made on the Hillary Clinton campaign website, entitled “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela,” an instance of “Hispandering” so blatant that even I, a gringo, am embarrassed by it. Ms. Jong, Hillary is neither my grandmother nor my abuela, and frankly, you should be ashamed at the insinuation.

On Clinton’s likability factor, meanwhile, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee fares markedly better than Donald Trump, her likely opposition in the general election. This, however, is not exactly a crowning achievement. After all, in relative terms, Trump’s favorability is lower than that of Nickelback’s. Nickelback, for God’s sake! A Public Policy Polling survey found only 34% of respondents had a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. That’s lower than Nickelback, as well as the DMV, hipsters, jury duty, lice, and used car salesmen. And he didn’t exactly blow out cockroaches or hemorrhoids, either. You can point to gender-based double standards or an obsession with the Clintons on the part of right-wingers with an ax to grind, or any number of variables, but the numbers don’t lie.

So, yes, despite the insistence of scores of supporters that Hillary Clinton is likable and trustworthy (and don’t forget eminently qualified!), I, like many other prospective voters, have my doubts. For those in the #NeverHillary camp, there are any number of reasons why her objectors may disavow all current, future and potentially even former allegiances with the “Woman of 1,000 Pantsuits,” reasons which may be repeatedly pointed out by haters on both sides of the political aisle. She voted for the Iraq War, though to be fair, a lot of people did. As Secretary of State, she was instrumental in the authorization of military force in a number of situations that become that much more tumultuous and costly, namely in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria, and even Honduras, though that last one tends to fall by the wayside, despite the fact the U.S. government essentially aided and abetted a military coup. The Clinton Foundation has been dogged by allegations of conflicts of interest in accepting monies from foreign interests while Clinton was Secretary of State, as well as the notion it has been less than transparent in its dealings. What else is there? The E-mail controversy. The Goldman Sachs speeches. A supposed army of Democratic establishment cronies at her disposal. Questions about her ownership of a company incorporated in Delaware at a place known for being a haven for tax dodgers. And this is just the more recent stuff!

Perhaps no other Clinton controversy, however, makes the blood boil of the #HillNo crowd more so than Benghazi, a situation of such intrigue that it spawned a whole terrible Michael Bay movie about it (some might claim the phrase “terrible Michael Bay movie” is a redundancy, but I’m not here to argue the merits of movie directors). Not only have the events of Benghazi inspired films of questionable factual accuracy, but they have led to significant investments of time and money by representatives of the federal government trying to figure what the heck exactly happened over there.

Of course, that four men lost their lives following the attack at the compound in Benghazi is obviously galling to Hillary’s most vocal critics. Plus, it never helps when an armed conflict with foreign hostiles ensues on September 11, a date already of some import because of an attack on Americans, as you well know. That there seemed to be such confusion, though, or as others would have it, misdirection on the part of the Obama administration and Department of State after news of the violence broke has helped fuel the sense of distrust and suspicion that characterizes the response of many even today—three years, going on four—after the incident.

Why the patriots among us are so upset about the so-called “Battle of Benghazi” may largely be up in the air, and even those who possess a strong emotional regard for the government’s handling of the situation may not even be conscious of why they are so angry, or disgusted, or frankly scared. With all the subjectivity that affects our perception, let’s briefly review what we generally know to be true. An American presence in Libya began shortly after the onset of the Libyan Civil War in February 2011, with eastern Libya and Benghazi relied upon as important intelligence-gathering hubs. From this vantage point, the CIA looked to keep watch on Al-Qaeda and supporting Libyan militias, as well as assess where it might derive leadership and support among the rebel forces going forward. By 2012, signs of unrest possibly related to a growing threat from Al-Qaeda in the region started to surface. In particular, an assassination attempt on the British ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith, and an attack on the Tunisian consulate prompted fears that a similar threat awaited the U.S. diplomatic presence there. Despite two requests for additional security at the American mission in Benghazi, those requests were denied, nor was it decided the mission should close outright. The Americans stationed in Libya, in short, were at risk.

As noted, there were ultimately four American fatalities in the attack: Glen Doherty, a contractor with the State Department and former Navy SEAL; Sean Smith, an information management officer with the United States Foreign Service; J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya; and Tyrone Woods, who also contracted with the government in a defense role. In the wake of the Battle of Benghazi, the initial report from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was that the violence at the diplomatic mission was the product of spontaneous protests to The Innocence of Muslims, a blatantly anti-Muslim film made by a man previously convicted of bank fraud and intent to manufacture meth, and even more amateurish than Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie. Awful as the movie was, and as real as the sense of outrage was in Arab countries surrounding this poor excuse for a student film project, the idea that the sudden reaction to the film’s existence led to the assault on the mission continued to be pushed despite mounting evidence that the attack was a coordinated and planned assault. As Sen. John McCain and others saw it, that weeks after the incident at Benghazi, a clear picture of what transpired on September 11, 2012 hadn’t yet developed, this much suggested the Obama administration was trying to sell the idea that Al-Qaeda was “on the wane,” and furthermore, that it was “either willful ignorance or abysmal intelligence” to think what happened at the mission wasn’t a specifically directed terrorist attack.

OK, so now that we’ve got that short (kinda, sorta) background information behind us, let’s get up to speed on present doings a-transpirin’. The Select Committee on Benghazi just released a new proposed report regarding the attack on the American diplomatic post in Benghazi. The Committee, a bipartisan 12-member group within the House of Representatives but led spiritually, if you will, by Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, advertises this report with the tagline, “81 New Witnesses, 75,000 New Pages of Documents Reveal Significant New Information, Fundamentally Changes the Public’s Understanding of the 2012 Terrorist Attacks that Killed Four Americans.” Wow, look at all those capital letters! A word of warning should you choose to click on that link: the language on the page exhibits a bias the size of Saudi Arabia. “More than 10,000 Days of Delays,” it cries! A statement on Democrats’ “So-Called ‘Report’,” it offers! “#DishonestDems can’t keep their misleading claims straight,” it calls out to anyone who will listen!

Rather than sift through all that documentation, what are those familiar with the report saying of its essential findings? The general consensus seems to be that even with all this new testimony and ink-and-paper regarding what happened back in 2012, there is no “bombshell” or “smoking gun” pointing to Hillary Clinton specifically. Accordingly, Hillary supporters and high-ranking Democrats have characterized this latest fact-finding effort, which Republicans spearheaded, as little more than a farce, a sham, or a witch hunt. Whatever term one chooses, there is no doubt this action by the Select Committee was politically motivated, as was the timing of the report’s release. Paired with the exhaustive hearings on Benghazi in October 2015 which also failed to stick anything of major substance to Clinton, the $7 million spent to plumb the depths of the Benghazi story are accordingly being viewed by many as a shameful waste of taxpayer money.

Be all of this as it may, the report is not without its due criticisms of the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, and of the State Department’s use of intelligence. According to Stephen Collinson of CNN, who reported on the report (gee, that sounds weird), the Committee finds that Clinton and other administration officials did not adequately assess the risks with maintaining a functioning diplomatic mission while trying to find a suitable location for a permanent consulate, and that the failure to distinguish the compound at Benghazi as a “permanent consulate,” in light of the evident dangers, guaranteed it would be perilously short on key security resources. Hillary has stated “there was no actionable intelligence” indicating a planned attack, and that she neither approved nor denied a request for more security because it never got to her.

Either way, though, the applicable subtext does not inspire comfort. If Hillary Clinton was, in fact, aware of the risks, chose not to act on them, and is lying after the fact, this much is certainly egregious. On the other hand, assuming she is telling the truth—that she lacked sufficient knowledge of what was going on in Libya—it’s puzzling as to why, especially after a second request for more resources. Even without J. Christopher Stevens’s assessments of the deteriorating situation around the mission, one might argue that Clinton, as Secretary of State, should have been more proactive in determining whether or not American agents should have remained in a hostile environment. As Jim Jordan, Republican representative from Ohio and co-author of the latest GOP report on the matter reasons, “Why were we still in Benghazi when almost every other country had left?” Again, I have no doubt that there is a strong political motivation underlying the tenor of the Republican response to the Select Committee’s findings on Benghazi, but this question isn’t completely out of bounds.

Critics of GOP efforts on the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have suggested that the only point in ripping open old wounds, so to speak, is to damage Clinton’s credibility. To what it extent it might actually work or has already worked is unclear, though with Hillary and Donald Trump effectively deadlocked in the most recent Quinnipiac survey, there might be something to Democrats’ contention. Nevertheless, it is not as if Hillary Clinton herself is known for her clarity on any number of issues. Whether fair or unfair, her questionable sense of accountability for the deaths of four Americans—which may have been preventable—is just one instance in a string of examples where transparency has seemed to be lacking. The speeches. The donors. Her “legitimate company” based in Delaware. Etc., etc. Clinton backers get rather defensive about the attacks that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have made regarding her judgment, but when detractors from both sides of the political spectrum can make the same arguments, the collective reservations about Hillary’s character quickly add up, especially in the current climate of frustration with the political establishment.

Regardless of what I think, that so many voters—including, perhaps most significantly, independent voters—have a perception problem with Hillary Clinton is something with which she and the Democratic National Committee are going to have to battle leading up to November. To stress, it may not be completely fair, and her opponent has his own allegations of impropriety on any number of levels. Whereas Trump, however, can brush off questions about his leadership and fitness for public office aside as an extension of his “maverick” personality, it doesn’t appear Clinton is able to do the same, for better or for worse. The Democratic Party made its bed with Hillary way early in the 2016 campaign season, and whether this has to do with the connections she has forged within the party, with the “progressive” image it is trying to sell by pushing the first female major-party candidate in United States history, or both, it will have to live with the qualms that exist with respect to that candidate’s character. Hopefully, we won’t have to live with it, too, looking retrospectively from the perspective of a Donald Trump-led America.

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