In both cases, fumbled explanations of intentions expose White House’s continued difficulties with communications.
Polls during the 2012 campaign consistently showed President Barack Obama with a significant advantage on foreign policy, thanks largely to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in recent weeks, Obama’s approval on foreign affairs has dropped, reflecting his difficulties in dealing with the Syrian civil war and the concerted Republican campaign to show his administration mishandled events surrounding the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
In both cases, fumbled explanations of Obama’s intentions have caused much of the difficulty, the latest example of this administration’s persistent problems in communicating its policies and actions.
Still, some Republicans argue the real problem is the inadequacy of his policies on fighting terrorism and coping with the turmoil in the Arab world.
On Benghazi, the report by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Michael Mullen blamed “leadership and management failures” in two State Department bureaus for mishandling a request for additional security. Four officials were removed though not fired.
As for their failure to answer repeated pleas from Benghazi for help on the night of the attack, both the State and Defense Department contend the closest military units were too far away to do any good. Critics dispute that conclusion.
But the administration’s biggest problem has been its inadequate explanations, specifically Obama’s initial reluctance to call the assault a terrorist attack and the infamous “talking points” with which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice clearly mischaracterized it on five Sunday television shows.
Though Obama called this a “side show,” top Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, have focused on these “talking points” as reflecting an effort by top Obama officials to cover up the extent of what happened and the administration’s failure to prevent it.
The “talking points” themselves show that officials deleted specific references to participation by “Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida,” leaving only the word “extremists,” and continued portraying the demonstrations as “spontaneously inspired” by Cairo protests that “evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post and subsequently its annex.”
But initial GOP suggestions the White House tempered Rice’s words to avoid suggestions its anti-terrorist efforts were faltering two months before the election remain unproved; the changes appear mostly to reflect a bureaucratic fight between the State Department and the CIA.
This has not deterred Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who has spent three years seeking a major Obama scandal. He will question Pickering and Mullen on why they never interviewed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, something they called unnecessary because they questioned the officials who made the actual security
Continuing to press Benghazi-related issues seems largely an effort to score political points on what was essentially a combination of bureaucratic bungling and a slow reaction to events.
But questions about any future role in Syria go more to the heart of U.S. policy on the uncertainty and disruptions stemming from rapid changes sweeping the Arab world.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who resisted withdrawing so quickly from Iraq and urged a more extensive U.S. role in Libya and now Syria, said the Benghazi affair shows “the light footprint approach to the Mideast is not working.”
Obama shows every sign of continuing to resist calls for a larger U.S. role in Syria, though he confused matters by warning in August that Syrian government use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that might trigger U.S. action, then backed away from that warning after reports such weapons were being used.
As with Benghazi, that statement — which aides called “unscripted” — undercut public perceptions of Obama’s position.
Still, polls indicate Americans back his determination to minimize the U.S. role in an area where the difficulty in determining how events will evolve makes Obama’s cautious approach the wisest course.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.