May 19, 2013

David Rohde: Obama's troubles part of bad pattern

The attacks on the president go beyond valid criticisms and intensify the political warfare.

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Far-right claims that Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally blocked aid to Benghazi before or during the attack are baseless and absurd. Neither would want an American ambassador killed in the middle of a presidential campaign.

Instead, blame for Benghazi lies across the government.

House Republicans' rejection of $450 million in State Department requests for additional security funding since 2010 intensified the department's dependence on private contractors to guard its facilities. When the Libyan government banned such firms, the department's understaffed Diplomatic Security Service had only a handful of personnel to deploy in Libya.

Charlene Lamb and three other State Department officials were relieved of their duties after rejecting repeated requests for additional security from U.S. officials in Libya.

Privately, career diplomats have also questioned Stevens' decision-making. They expressed surprise at his choice to spend the nights of Sept. 10 and 11 in Benghazi, which had already experienced a series of anti-Western attacks. Brief, unpredictable day visits make it more difficult for attackers to plan assaults, they said.

And as Jake Tapper correctly pointed out in a May 15 piece for CNN, the Benghazi facility was, in fact, primarily a CIA outpost. Of the roughly 30 people evacuated from the site, 20 were CIA employees. State Department officials had an informal arrangement with the CIA to provide security if needed. When the attack unfolded, both the CIA and military were unprepared.

The 100 pages of emails released by the White House on Wednesday raise more questions for Clinton than for Obama. The State Department -- not the White House -- mounted an intensive effort to eliminate references to al-Qaida from much-disputed talking points. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, for example, should disclose whom she was referring to when she cited the concerns of her "building leadership."

In the weeks ahead, perceptions of Obama will likely harden. The right will see him as dastardly. The left will view him as a victim of Washington's gutter politics. Most probably, his biggest sin is being aloof and disengaged.

But Obama's failings are only part of the problem. An increasingly polarized Washington is devouring its own. Ceaseless, take-no-prisoners political warfare, not nefarious White House plots, ravages government.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. 


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