Mr. President, Get a Handle on the Scandals


(The Root) — Last week, with the Dow Jones industrial average breaking 15,000, war raging in Syria, a guilty verdict in the Jodi Arias trial and nearly round-the-clock coverage of the (mercifully) found victims of the Cleveland kidnappings, House Republicans were fighting an uphill battle to make a splash with committee hearings on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.

And the GOP had no one but itself to blame.

Because after four-and-a-half years of their cynical charges that every foreign policy decision made by President Barack Obama was either "dithering," "apologizing," "leading from behind" or an inability to "call evil evil," it shouldn't really surprise Republicans — or anyone else — that when it was time for Congress to litigate a hard-to-unravel episode like Benghazi in the court of public opinion, a big chunk of the public was tuning them out.


Given that they've effectively ignored at least a dozen embassy attacks over the last decade, the outrage exhibited by congressional Republicans over what they call a Benghazi "whitewash" takes gall.

But after Friday's report that the State Department's Benghazi talking points underwent a series of revisions — obscuring, at least initially, terrorist involvement in the attacks — and news that the Internal Revenue Service targeted Tea Party groups claiming tax-exempt status, storm clouds have rapidly gathered over the administration. And if Obama can't figure out how to thoroughly deal with these controversies — quickly — he won't have anyone to blame but himself, either.

Get a handle on these scandals, Mr. President, or you're going to have a very ugly second term.

On Benghazi, I don't buy charges of a cover-up, but I do think National Journal's Michael Hirsh was right when he argued that if it isn't a scandal, it looks at least as if it was handled with a fair measure of "tragic incompetence," because there's never been a satisfying answer as to why more military assets weren't deployed during the attack.

The State Department's Benghazi review board (pdf) has concluded, "The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference" (emphasis added). Which leads to a fair question:

Maybe the special-ops team in Tripoli — that then-Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya Gregory Hicks says was told to stand down — couldn't be spared elsewhere. Maybe "scrambling fighters" from our Air Force base in Aviano, Italy — which Hicks said he requested — would have been a fruitless response. But with Americans under fire, could something else have been tried? To have intervened a year earlier in Libya's civil war and then not have effective contingency plans in place for the scenario that unfolded was, as many have already pointed out, plainly a failure.


Though the president described questions about the administration's official talking points as a "sideshow" in a Monday press conference, what isn't a sideshow is what actually happened that night. If the "fog of war" was just too thick to change the course of events that night, so be it. But the Pentagon and State Department should have been more candid about that from the beginning.

In the IRS case, the president called it "outrageous" that Tea Party groups were singled out for scrutiny of their tax-exempt status by the agency's Cincinnati office and said that if what's been reported proves true, he has "no patience with it."


What should deeply concern him, though, are not just inadequacies that exist in the bureaucracy.

His tenure is marked by a national debate about the size and reach of government — and he's made the case for robust government action in dealing with the nation's economic well-being. In that context, the president bears a responsibility to excise whatever rot exists in the IRS, all the way up to the top — no matter how many heads roll.


And apart from the loss of life involved, what should also disturb Obama is that Benghazi casts a pall over one of his signature victories — and could hamstring foreign policy plans that should be the part of his agenda over which he has most control.

His intervention in Libya's civil war, which succeeded in ousting Muammar Qaddafi with the open support of the Arab League and United Nations — without any military casualties — has given way to an unbecoming fight between his administration and Congress. Partly — yes — because Republicans want to trash Obama and thwart Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions.


And partly because this time, his administration helped its critics accomplish that mission.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter