It may be remembered as Hillary Clinton’s “Al Haig moment:” She declared, “I take responsibility” for the assault in Libya last month that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The current secretary of state was as misguided in her statement as Haig, her long-ago predecessor, was when he announced “I am in control here” after President Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981. A secretary of state is our country’s foreign minister, responsible for representing and furthering the president’s foreign policy in front of foreign audiences. Although fourth in the line of presidential succession (behind the vice president, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore), a secretary of state is neither deputy president nor White House chief of staff.
Haig, though tone-deaf, was clearly well-intentioned; he wanted to reassure the country, at a moment of crisis, that there was a firm hand on the tiller while vice president George H.W. Bush was en route to Washington after the attempted assassination. But the president was not dead and he had not yielded his powers, so Haig never lived down the perception that he was arrogant and self-aggrandizing.
Clinton’s motives were less altruistic. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she told CNN. Translation: President Obama, who is both her boss and the man for whom her husband is stumping, has been taking all sorts of heat for the alleged lack of security at the diplomatic compound where the Americans were attacked. Clinton, who is expected to leave the government next year regardless of the election results, stepped forward to protect Obama.
My guess is that it is not going to help.
It is certainly true that the State Department has front-line responsibility for protecting U.S. diplomats and the facilities in which they work. As head of the department, Clinton is accountable for how it discharges, or fails to discharge, that duty. By taking responsibility for something that is already her responsibility, she is only stating the obvious.
But the secretary of state serves at the pleasure of the president. What happened to his responsibility for his appointee’s failings?
The issue came up in this week’s presidential debate. As a follow-up to a question about the Benghazi attack, moderator Candy Crowley asked Obama: “Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?”
“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job,” the president replied. “But she works for me. I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.” Apart from the verbiage, slightly mangled in the heat of the moment, Obama’s answer leaves it somewhat unclear whether his responsibility is that of a commander-in-chief or of a historian. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was belatedly owning up to what happened on his watch.
The militants who attacked the compound in Benghazi are responsible for the resulting deaths; the blame for those does not rightly belong to either Obama or Clinton. Nobody is arguing otherwise. The criticism of Obama and his White House instead centers around two points, neither of which Clinton addressed.
The first is that the White House, as well as the State Department, initially cited the attack as a spontaneous result of a protest against an offensive anti-Islamic film that was supposedly produced in America. (The film has never actually been seen; only an extended trailer has appeared on the internet.) It now seems clear that there was no such protest and that the assault was the work of an organized militant group, Ansar al-Shariah, which originated locally but has been variously described as inspired by or loosely affiliated with al-Qaida.
The Obama administration characterizes its initial failure to correctly describe the attack as an innocent mistake, borne of battlefield confusion. Critics, however, assert that the administration was reluctant to admit that American officials died at the hands of the supposedly reeling al-Qaida. Obama had previously spun his victories against terror to his political advantage, only to face the potential to be hoisted on that same hook by the events in Benghazi.
The second point that drew criticism is that it was clear to some State Department officers months ago that American diplomats in Libya needed more security. What is unclear is whether those views reached the White House and, if so, what response they received. It is easy to fall into the hindsight trap, in which an unexpected tragedy appears in retrospect to have been more predictable than it actually was. But Libya is a volatile Arab nation in the aftermath of a bloody uprising, where weapons are abundant and extremists are known to be trying to fill the lingering power vacuum. Some hard questions need to be asked in the tragedy’s aftermath. The Obama administration has given every indication that it wants to postpone answering those questions until at least after the election.
Claiming responsibility makes Clinton look like a soldier following orders. It is reasonable to speculate that, apart from general loyalty to her president and her party, she would find it easier to seek the White House in 2016 were Obama to be completing a second term, rather than if an incumbent Romney were preparing for a re-election campaign.
Whatever her motives, by stepping in front of the president, Clinton risked making him appear weak and evasive. Obama’s advisers may have come to the same conclusion, leading him to accept responsibility during the debate. Ultimately, this situation will probably teach Clinton that no good deed goes unpunished. Not only did the president publicly rebuff her protective efforts, he reminded her one final time that he, not she, won the seat in the Oval Office that they both coveted in 2008. He gets to be commander-in-chief. She gets to be Al Haig.