Pro: 'What difference does it make?' quip may thwart her ambitions
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon become Citizen Clinton once more. She'll rake in huge speaking fees, juicy book deals, corporate board seats and dozens more honorary doctoral degrees. But none of that can ever wash away what happened at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Last year, on 9/11, Secretary Clinton finally got that "3 a.m. phone call." Her failure to answer leaves a permanent black mark on her record.
Al-Qaeda has made war on our State Department for over a decade — since the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. The department has had to learn how to defend its staff and facilities in combat zones from Iraq to Afghanistan. That background makes State's failure to address adequately the security risks in Libya all the more stunning.
Secretary Clinton's blindness to the magnitude of the department's failure was on display in her recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Was it because of a protest or is it because of guys out for a walk one night and they decide they go kill some Americans?" she asked rhetorically, before adding: "What difference, at this point, does it make?"
It was like asking: "What's the difference between hitting a deer that bolts out in front of your car or running over some kids on a field trip because you're blind drunk." One is an accident; the other is a failure of judgment.
The administration now acknowledges the assault in Benghazi was a deliberate, planned terrorist act. It is reasonable — indeed, necessary — to ask if State did everything reasonable to mitigate the risk.
We know there was no shortage of funds or other resources. Senior State Department officials have repeatedly testified there was no problem there — though some politicians continue to cry poverty on behalf of the administration.
Clearly, the problem was the department's failure to plan adequately before the attack and respond adequately once it began.
Seeing no difference between a riot and a raid also suggests Clinton doesn't understand the nature of the threat.
"Islamist terrorists," wrote my colleague, Middle East scholar Jim Phillips, "are motivated to kill Americans not because of emotional reactions to alleged slights such as the questionable video on Mohammed, but because they seek to seize power and impose their Islamist totalitarian ideology on other Muslims."
Clinton just doesn't get that. Her testimony revealed a leader unapologetic for her failure to act or understand.
Worse, she showed no real interest in learning from the incident. But Clinton has disengaged herself from the Benghazi horror from the beginning. Immediately after the attack, the department surprised everyone by presenting a U.N. ambassador — a post irrelevant to the events — rather than the secretary herself as its official spokesperson for the tragedy. Later, and perhaps more shockingly, Clinton didn't even bother to testify before the Accountability Review Board she had commissioned to investigate the incident.
When challenged on her actions and non-actions at the hearing, Clinton launched an emotional counterattack. But demonstrating empathy with the fallen can never make up for the failures that allowed them to fall. And after four months of distancing herself from the tragedy, Clinton's hearing histrionics rang hollow.
Throughout this sorry saga, Clinton has demonstrated poor leadership. Taking "responsibility" for the attack means nothing without follow-up. It appears that the only thing she hopes to learn from the experience is that — if you play nice with the press and with Congress — you can suffer no consequences for abject failure.
That said, the bumbling of Benghazi and the indifference toward learning from the disaster cannot be erased from reality. The ghosts of Benghazi will always follow Citizen Clinton — even amid the future crowds cheering "Madam Secretary."
James Jay Carafano is vice president for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Con: Libya tragedy won't leave lasting scars on Clinton's ambitions
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It's possible that Hillary Clinton may decide not to run for president in 2016, but there is very little reason to believe such a decision would be a result of her handling of the Benghazi attacks.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, Clinton is leaving her post as secretary of state with an "eye-popping" 69 percent approval rating.
This is nearly 20 percent higher than President Obama's average approval rating this month, according to Real Clear Politics, and nearly 50 percent higher than Congress, which the Public Policy Polling firm recently found "is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams and even Nickelback."
If Secretary Clinton's approval numbers are this high during a month in which she endured a hostile congressional grilling over Benghazi, there is no reason to expect that the incident is going to plague her in any meaningful way.
Furthermore, the historical evidence suggests that Americans are not inclined to punish their leaders for a failure to anticipate and prevent attacks on our citizens.
In the wake of surprise attacks we tend to be much more interested in national unity than in recriminations, as seen in the case of Pearl Harbor and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election in 1984 only a year and a half after the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen, and George W. Bush was re-elected handily despite having failed to anticipate or prevent the 9/11 attacks — and recall that he had received a memo on Aug. 6 titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." While playing the "blame game" is a perennial favorite of politicians, the American people have never demonstrated much enthusiasm for it.
Clinton's response to Benghazi is another factor working in her favor. Clinton directly answered tough questions from Congress in her recent testimony, and she forcefully argued that the State Department was doing everything within its power to address the problems and to hold the people responsible accountable.
Clinton has not dodged the issue and she has demonstrated a willingness to accept responsibility for mistakes that were made and to work to fix the problems that have been identified.
Most important, she has not engaged in a cover-up. Historically, this type of response satisfies the American people, and polling suggests that this is the case in this instance as well.
Recent polls from CNN and Fox News confirm that a majority of Americans do not believe there has been a cover-up of the Benghazi incident and a plurality, 49 percent, approves of the administration's overall handling of foreign policy.
A leader's legacy is rarely dependent on a single event, regardless of how significant that event may seem at the time.
The continuing confidence that the American people have shown in Clinton's leadership of the State Department reflects an appreciation of the overall record of success during her tenure, which saw the spread of democracy in North Africa during the Arab Spring and a general restoration of American prestige abroad.
comments on this story
But perhaps the strongest evidence that the Benghazi incident will not harm Secretary Clinton's legacy is the decisive re-election of President Obama. If Benghazi wasn't sufficient to prevent Barack Obama's re-election, despite repeated attempts by the Republicans to make it an issue, it is hard to imagine that it would prevent Hillary Clinton from running in 2016 if she chooses to do so.
Clearly, there is still a significant level of support for Clinton throughout the country and, barring some unexpected revelations in the future, there is little reason to expect that support to diminish due to the Benghazi attacks.
Jim Cottrill is an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University.