June 16, 2013

Barney Frank: Reactions to terror attacks weren't always so political

Misdirected blame for Benghazi shows how low the dialogue in this country has fallen.

It is important for political figures -- including retired political figures who have become columnists -- to resist the temptation to overlook the faults of our political allies.

First, it is wrong. A refusal to be critical of your friends when they have behaved inappropriately is one of the most common -- and therefore most damaging -- instances of the dishonesty that corrodes honest discussion.

There is a second reason -- credibility. Elected officials who want their supporters to refrain from any criticism of "their side" are asking their friends not only to sacrifice intellectual honesty, but also to lose the very credibility that can be helpful when there is unfair criticism.

On May 19, I began my column with a strong condemnation of the Obama administration's role in the politicization of the IRS audits.

My reaction to the Republican attacks on the administration's actions regarding the murders of American diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya, is the opposite.

The hyper-partisan right wing is guilty of excess in their criticism, to the point that they are illustrating with their demagoguery one aspect of the deterioration in American political dialogue over the past 30 years.

I was in my second term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives when more than 200 Marines were killed, while most of them were sleeping, by Islamic fanatics in Lebanon. A truckload of explosives rammed the barracks in which they were quartered, and it was clear there had not been the degree of protection of the building that the difficult security situation demanded.

The Marines had been ordered into Lebanon by President Reagan in an effort to maintain some stability in the area. There is a constant theme here of our intervening militarily in Arab nations to promote stability, and reaping greater instability and unpopularity as a result.

After this great tragedy, a good deal of debate occurred in Washington, but it was focused more on how to prevent a recurrence of this sort of attack more than finger-pointing about responsibility. At one point, President Reagan did acknowledge that preparations for security for the Marines had not gone as quickly as originally planned, and he somewhat disconcertingly analogized it to a house renovation, when the kitchen is not ready as soon as you would like it to be.

I remember some criticism of that remark. But I also remember that we Democrats who controlled the House at that time did not engage in anything like the vicious, ongoing effort to blame President Obama for the loss of American military lives, comparable to what the Republicans in the House are now doing.

In 1983, when evil people did terrible things to Americans, our response was to come together and try to make policy corrections so we were better defended, while making clear that the blame belonged overwhelmingly on the murderers.

In today's America, the degree of extreme partisanship on the part of the Republicans has created a situation in which they spend much more time trying to blame President Obama than they do the killers.

And their effort to blame the president is wildly inaccurate. The central point is whether or not the administration failed to take actions to prevent the murders when it could have. No informed observer has advanced even a plausible scenario in which that might have occurred.

Robert Gates, one of the few remaining examples of bipartisanship among Republicans, who was George Bush's appointee to be secretary of defense and who was kept in that post by President Obama, has flatly stated that there was nothing that could have been done by the American military to save the victims.

This point deserves emphasis: No one, including the most denunciatory Republicans, has even begun to make the case that decisions by anyone in the Obama administration in Washington contributed to the death of these martyrs.

There are grounds for criticism of the confused interdepartmental activities immediately after the assault on our consulate. Bureaucratic rivalries do appear to have intruded in the process by which the earliest explanations were given.

But even here there is no real issue: Fairly soon after the assault, the administration made it clear that it was a terrorist attack organized by Islamic fanatics. The thrust of the Republican charge appears to be that Susan Rice should have been clearer on this point earlier.

The only thing that would have saved the lives of our diplomats would have been a decision to abandon Benghazi as too dangerous a place. And that, of course, would have provoked great criticism from many of those who are now attacking the administration as being an abdication of America's responsibility to bring order to Libya.

The difference between 1983 and 2013 is that then, Democrats in the House worked collaboratively with the administration to improve the defenses of our military personnel. In 2013, the Republicans controlling the House have focused their anger much more on the Obama administration than on the murderers who killed our diplomats, and have sought to create an atmosphere in which some Americans blame others for the fact that terrible people did bad things to some of us.

Ambassador Chris Stevens was an extraordinarily courageous and dedicated official who made himself vulnerable out of his sense of duty and patriotism.

Going forward, we should improve the security of our diplomats in these sorts of situations. But even more important, we should severely diminish the number of occasions in which we ask them to be there.

The objection that Ambassador Stevens was not adequately protected in that danger zone has to be evaluated in the context of what level of security would have to be provided for every American diplomat who bravely puts himself or herself in similar danger. Sometimes, that is necessary either in the national interest or for humanitarian purposes.

More often, our diplomats are doing this in pursuit of what I believe to be a futile effort to create social cohesion in societies where no outside intervention can achieve that. It is the last point that I hope we will keep in mind as we deal with those who are agitating for a significant American intervention into Syria.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

 

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