Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

November 29, 2012

Congress in Wonderland

By David K. Shipler

            “EAT ME,” said the note on the plate of cookies. So Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham took bites and rapidly shrank until they were small enough to fit through the tiny door into the halls of Congress.
            There, mingling with their same-sized colleagues, these once-larger men badgered the White House and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice about her account of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, parsing the language of the CIA’s talking points she had been given, which had carefully excised a reference to a terrorist group because the information remained classified to protect intelligence gathering.
            The trouble with being very small is that you can’t get an overview of the very big problems that tower around you.
It’s hard to see anything above the weeds. So the larger issues of Libya’s trajectory, the upheavals of the Arab Spring, the American posture in a volatile Middle East, the drone targeting of supposed terrorists, the messy drawdown in Afghanistan, the dicey relationship with Pakistan, the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program—all these and more—exist far above your head.
            This raises a question of causality. Do small people go into politics, or does politics reduce the stature of respectable people?
It’s clear that McCain harbors resentment over Rice’s acerbic criticisms of him during the 2008 campaign and is willing to use his office for petty revenge. (Perhaps she didn’t think ahead to the day when McCain might have something to say about whether she became Secretary of State.)
Graham, for his part, has displayed a parochial inability to see very far. His undistinguished career has been marked, for example, by his short-sighted advocacy of military courts instead of civilian courts to try alleged terrorists, not recognizing the longer term constitutional dangers of placing such procedures wholly within the executive branch.
The matter of Susan Rice, then, is only a symptom of the crude politicking that makes Congress ineffectual. Americans just sent a lot of messages, which the political class has been diagnosing since the election, but voters evidently failed to convey with sufficient clarity their profound disgust at the small behavior of their legislative branch.  
Granted, what Rice knew and said is not entirely unimportant. Working from official guidance cleared by the CIA and the FBI, Rice portrayed the Benghazi attack as the violent result of a demonstration, similar to the one outside the U.S embassy in Cairo, against an anti-Muslim video made in America and circulated online. Although some accounts from the ground report an initial protest, a well-organized militia apparently planned and executed the assault.
This became public soon enough, but McCain and Graham are in a frenzy over Rice’s failure to throw the word “terrorism” into her earlier account; they like to toss it around, and it gets cheaper as they do so. If she had deliberately distorted the facts to burnish the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism record, as the senators charge, that would be a legitimate complaint, possibly disqualifying if she is nominated as Secretary of State. But that’s not what seems to have happened. Instead, the details were fuzzed up by the CIA, presumably to “protect sources and methods,” in the oft-used cliché of the intelligence community.
According to Scott Shane of The New York Times, “The initial version of the talking points identified the suspected attackers—a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah, with possible links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of the terrorist network in North Africa. But during a subsequent review by several intelligence agencies, CIA officials were concerned that such specific language might tip off the malefactors, skew intelligence collection in Libya, and interfere with the criminal investigation. So they replaced the names with the blanket term ‘extremists.’”
This may not let Rice entirely off the hook, depending on what she knew when about Ansar al-Shariah. But you can bet that if she had revealed that information, classified at the time, the distinguished senators would have skewered her for disclosing secrets to rally the public around Obama at a threatening moment. Presidents always go up in the polls when the country seems at risk. 
Let’s remember that Rice’s main competitor for the job at State is Senator John Kerry, who had the bad judgment to consider McCain as his vice presidential running mate in 2004. Kerry, a Democrat, would surely be confirmed, and his vacant seat would then be up for grabs in Massachusetts. It might be a long shot for Republicans, but in a narrowly divided Senate they’d love to have the chance.
 Kerry, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would probably make a better Secretary of State than Susan Rice. He is suave, smart, experienced in foreign affairs, and may even bring creative thinking to an administration that conducts policy overseas by more reflex than strategy. But as Tom Friedman wrote in jokingly proposing the canny negotiator Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the job, “a big part of being secretary of education (and secretary of state) is getting allies and adversaries to agree on things they normally wouldn’t—and making them think that it was all their idea.” (Friedman knows about this from working for editors at The Times.)
So Kerry may be too sincere. Perhaps Obama can find some charming, nasty, streetwise, hard-bargaining, poker-playing, horse-trading strategic thinker out there who knows every dangerous neighborhood or can be a fast learner. This is the kind of discussion that McCain and Graham might be having with the White House and the public. Instead, they ate the cookies.

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