What Makes a Scandal Stick

With everything the Republican Party has thrown at Barack Obama, why has so little of it gained traction? For all his alleged wrongs, Obama still won a second term. I think it has a lot to do with what the American public can grok.

Let’s look at arguably the two biggest scandals of the past 30 years. Iran-Contra, trading arms for hostages. Those four words say it all. Easy to understand, easy to get outraged about. Lying about receiving fellatio from a subordinate in the Oval Office. Again, what could be simpler?

Fast forward to 2009.

Fast and Furious: too complicated a plot line with the reasonable fallback excuse of  “sometimes an operation gets botched.”

Benghazi: the fog of war makes the real story debatable, Americans don’t have the patience to sort through all of it and the fallback excuse “sometimes an operation gets botched.”

IRS: might have had legs if Joe next door got abused but WTF is a 501(c)(4) anyway? Yawn, change the channel.

But Obama’s luck, for lack of a better word, may have finally run out.

The failed ACA rollout: forget the “you can keep your doctor” misinformation; the real kicker here was a website that didn’t work. We live in an age where even the dumbest ignoramus uses a computer and can tell a sucky web site from a good one. Obama flubbed the most fundamental aspect of his landmark legislation — the ability to actually sign up for it. This won him universal skepticism about his competence. This was capped off by the “well-timed” resignation of his Secretary of HHS.

The VA Scandal: you don’t mess with one of our most beloved minorities, the combat veteran. Not only were they dying, waiting for treatment, but the public was being lied to about the speed at which folks were being admitted into the system. This, again, is an example of basic incompetence easily understood by the American public and repugnant to 99% of it. This was capped off by the resignation of his Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The Bergdahl Trade: we traded a traitor for five (arguably) dangerous Gitmo detainees. What could be easier to understand? Again, this scandal plays on America’s reverence for noble military service and its fear of terrorists. In the Benghazi conflict Susan Rice’s comments are still debated to this day as to their veracity at the moment she spoke them. In this case, however, she outright lied about Bergdahl’s “honorable” service. This weekend she clarified that her remarks referred to Bergdahl’s enlisting in the service but I think most of us would agree the honor is in serving, not in enlisting and certainly not in deserting.

Regarding the Bergdahl fiasco, I spent much of the past week shaking my head and saying “I just don’t understand this. Why the Rose Garden grandiosity? Why not do this on the down-low? Why the claim of imminent death due to poor health when the dude looks in pretty good shape? Why not give Congress the 30 days notice? Poor project planning or brazen contempt for the law?” I am no armchair foreign policy expert. If I was thinking this, then I assure you many others in the country were wondering the same thing.

For reasons I cannot wrap my head around, Obama has transitioned from complicated conflicts where good arguments could be made on both sides, to getting the basics wrong — to blowing the easy stuff.  All the Republicans need is control of the Senate and these easy to understand examples of incompetence, in some cases mendacity, mean impeachment cannot be far away. The public won’t tolerate a trumped-up impeachment but they won’t object too loudly if Obama makes it too easy.

With each new screw-up, that is exactly what Obama is doing.


The Benghazi Hoax – A Review

“The Benghazi Hoax” was written by David Brock, Ari Rabin-Havt and the gang at Media Matters. The title of course says it all. These guys think that the entire controversy over the tragic events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11-12, 2012 were a hoax perpetrated by the right wing on a gullible public. Though I lean left, true to the “common sense” theme of this blog, I wanted to read the book as objectively as possible and apply some common sense to their arguments. In particular, I tried to inhabit the body of a skeptic (maybe even a conservative one) and see if the book met the basic test of convincing me of their assertion.

What follows is not my independent analysis of Benghazi. I fully admit I am not up to that task. This is simply my opinion of whether the authors of the “Hoax” met their test. I will run through the book, point by point, giving a YAY or NAY on each one,with a brief explanation of why I “voted” that way.

Let me start by saying that, to their credit, the folks at Media Matters devoted almost half the book to end-notes. It shows their effort to at least not do a half-assed job. I think it would make any college professor proud. The end-note that immediately caught my eye was a State Department report on attacks on embassies and embassy officials. It supports one of their conclusions that Barack Obama was certainly not the first President to deal with embassy related violence. How many other Presidents received this much scrutiny when these events happened on their watch? Folks will say “but this was an Ambassador”. Tell that to the many embassy workers who have lost their lives in dangerous locales over the years.

1. Mitt Romney’s Statement – YAY – Mitt clearly dropped the ball in both content and timing when he released a statement about Obama sympathizing with terrorists before the blood in Benghazi was even dry. Interestingly, the statement by Romney, castigating the Obama admin for being apologetic with respect to Cairo and Benghazi, tied both to the anti-Muslim video posted to the Internet. Clearly even the Romney camp bought into the theory that would later be used to smear Obama with lying and cover-up. Beyond that, Romney was factually wrong. The apologetic tone of the embassy in Cairo was independent of official State Department instruction and was quickly repudiated by the State Department. So he was wrong on the facts AND his timing — politicizing a tragedy in real time — could not have been worse.

2. Terrorism or Act of Terror – NAY – A single reminder to Media Matters: words matter. The Presidential statement in the Rose Garden in which he referred to “acts of terror” was so awkward and indirect that he deservedly was skewered by the right wing. In no part of his statement that dealt directly with Benghazi did he use the term “terror”. Only toward the end of his statement, in a generic declaration, did he employ the phrase “acts of terror”. When CNN’s Candy Crowley ambushed Romney regarding Obama’s wording during a debate on foreign policy, the part of me that wanted Obama to win the debate was cheering. But the truth is Romney was right. The president never clearly tied the the notion of terrorism to the Benghazi event in his Rose Garden remarks.

3. The Attack on Susan Rice – YAY/NAY – Their argument on Susan Rice gets a mixed review. On the YAY side they make the valid point that she was doing her assignment. Sometimes we forget that at the end of the day, these folks have JOBS that involve doing what your boss tells you to do. When I was in the corporate world I was assigned the role of Project Architect, a role for which I was totally unprepared. After my initial protest, I took one for the team and did the job as best I could. As cliched as it may sound, Rice’s appearance on five Sunday talk shows amounted to “just following orders”. She was taking one for the team. It must also be noted that she was tempering her language with an emphasis on how preliminary the findings were. She gave herself an “out” on the facts — an out that was subsequently ignored by the right. So why the NAY? The boys at Media Matters were doing fine with their argument until they lumped Rice in with Eric Holder and Van Jones to imply a racist motive for Rice’s persecution. That is total nonsense. Rice went on TV and gave misinformation that was fed to her. That made her easy pickings for opponents of the Obama administration. There was nothing racist about it.

4. The Talking Points – A qualified YAY — Moving from Susan Rice the person, to the actual points she made, Media Matters presents one compelling fact. The talking points tying Benghazi to Cairo and therefore to the explosive Internet video, originated not at the White House but at the CIA. David Petraeus, beloved by conservatives and head of the CIA at the time, was instrumental in this spin on events. The reason given was that the CIA didn’t want to put all our cards on the table so early in a criminal investigation. The reason I qualify my YAY is that White House documents (some released before the Media Matters book and one released just this past week) show a State Department interested in protecting its reputation. To any loved ones of the dead, this petty office politics is repugnant.

5. The Republican Investigations – NAY – The author’s analysis of Darrell Issa and his congressional committee amounts to whining. They accuse the committee of partisanship (no kidding) and incompetence but they don’t actually do a deep dive on what evidence the committee heard nor do they prove their assertion that the primary motive of the committee was Obama-hate.

6. The Fake Concussion – YAY – Not even worth discussing. The notion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was malingering to avoid testifying to Darrell Issa’s committee is so grade-school it is embarrassing. That grown men and women promulgated this meme says volumes about how low our public discourse has fallen.

7. Hillary Clinton Faked Her Emotion – YAY/NAY — Again a mixed review from me. Some conservatives said that when Hillary teared up during her congressional testimony she was “acting”. This is right up there with the previous point about the faked concussion. Pure grade school foolishness. But then Media Matters slips up again and blames the conservative attack on, wait for it, sexism. So, not even halfway through the book the authors have played the race card and the gender card for no good reason.

8. A Disengaged Administration – YAY – The notion that Obama didn’t care about the events in Benghazi that night is another silly GOP talking point. The President was briefed on the event and gave the very obvious advice to his subordinates to stay on top of it. What Benghazi was real-time was confusing chaos. Everyone knows that it is the job of the President’s subordinates to handle situations and that he is enlisted for dedicated attention only when lower levels have been exhausted. The notion that he would delegate observation of this event down his chain is not at all unusual. It’s like expecting the President to drop everything he is doing to monitor the events at the latest Fort Hood shooting. It’s a naive assessment of Presidential priorities. (For that matter, if inattentiveness is the accusation, why did folks not ask about Obama’s whereabouts during the Cairo protests of the previous day? When does a threat to an American’s safety merit dedicated Presidential attention?)

9. Military Options – YAY – If you don’t want to believe the left leaning media about whether we responded adequately to the Benghazi attack in real-time, how about listening to two Republicans? Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates called the notion of military intervention “sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces“. “The House Republican Conference on the Events Surrounding the September 11. 2012 Terrorist Attacks in Benghazi, Libya” drew a similar conclusion in their preliminary report. No realistic military option had been summarily dismissed or overlooked.

10. The “Critical Cables” a qualified YAY – One of the prime faults in “The Benghazi Hoax” is the constant GOP bashing by Media Matters, that plays well to its liberal followers but ultimately undermines some of its arguments. In this particular argument they score a clear victory but obscure it in accusations of the Republicans trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 aspirations. Honestly, whether or not that is true, it’s an unnecessary side show. The main point presented here is that Hillary does not physically sign most of the memos that the State Department sends out in her name. Anyone who works for a large firm and gets a letter from the CEO congratulating them on their 10th anniversary with the company is a fool to think the CEO really signed that letter — or for that matter has any idea who the hell they are. That is standard operating procedure for big bureaucracies. A memo “signed by Hillary” in relation to embassy security simply does not contradict the notion that she knew of no such memo. It is as simple as that.

11. Attacks on the ARB – YAY/NAY – The authors convincingly assert that the State Department did what anyone would expect them to do (and apparently what they are required to do): investigate the incident and recommend how to prevent a recurrence. The ARB report issued 64 recommendations and four staffers were disciplined (although not fired). The only NAY on this argument is that Media Matters does not adequately explain why Hillary Clinton was not more extensively interviewed by the investigators. Apparently they had a brief discussion with her at the end of their research. As head honcho at “Foggy Bottom” Hillary seems worthy of more than a brief interview at the end of the investigation.

12 Muzzled – NAY – Media Matters deals with the fact that a CBS reporter with a questionable past floated a story about the Obama administration intimidating possible witnesses who might testify to Issa’s panel. Unfortunately, they only discredit the muzzling of one whistle blower, Gregory Hicks. They don’t delve deeper to discredit the entire notion of intimidation. If you believe folks were coerced not to testify or to lie, this argument by Media Matters will not convince you otherwise.

13. Left Behind – YAY – The authors provide a timeline that I think lays to rest the notion our people were “left behind” to die.

14. The Stand Down Order – YAY – This is similar to the previous point. No order to tell forces to do nothing was issued. The House Armed Services Committee itself confirmed that no stand down order was issued related to Benghazi.

15. Jonathan Karl’s Scoop – NAY – ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported on an email chain that he did not actually read himself. He relied on a skewed reading by an “informant” thereby discrediting Karl’s “scoop” that State Department emails showed a preoccupation with protecting the department’s reputation. The only problem is that the REAL emails released by the White House do show State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland trying to cover the department’s ass. Emails from Deputy NSA Ben Rhodes, minus the skew, do come off less damning. (More email from Rhodes was released in the past week and frankly add nothing new to the emails we had already seen from him). Bottom line, all Media Matters does with this point is prove that Karl reported the truth badly. His incompetence in sourcing did not change the fact that Nuland was interested in protecting her boss.

Very sadly the primary point proven by “The Benghazi Hoax” was that the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2012 was politicized by both parties. One party went to absurd lengths to prove that a President would deliberately lie about the tragedy in order to get reelected. The other party for much less complex reasons — for rather mundane reasons — strove to cover its ass and cast aspersions on its opponents. The Republican’s endless digging for a smoking gun that simply doesn’t exist speaks for itself. But the tone of Brock and Rabin-Havt’s book shows an opposition of cry babies, ready to ascribe distracting accusations of racism and sexism to what is transparently simply politics. When you’re done reading, you have to wonder about the maturity of all the folks in Washington. So much of what is described in the book, from the GOP action to the left’s reaction is so Kindergarten that it is embarrassing.

From my reading of the book, the Benghazi “scandal” comes down to mundane petty office politics. Not even grand intriguing international politics. Just ordinary people playing CYA while their inquisitors indulge their fantasy of a terrorist-sympathizing President and his callous Secretary of State. The truth about Benghazi is not the drama you see on Fox and MSNBC.

The truth about Benghazi is tragic and ultimately very ordinary. We Americans don’t like ordinary. We like drama. That is what elevates Benghazi to a scandal.




Food for Despots

178px-_Be_Smart_Act_Dumb__-_NARA_-_514912Despots thrive on ignorance. After watching US foreign policy for the past 10 or so years, it is not too far-fetched to say that people get the government they deserve. We have learned this lesson time and time again. First we thought we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. Then we moved from anti-terrorism to nation building in Afghanistan. Then we cheered on the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya. In all cases we have discovered that the country post-despot is far more dysfunctional than the country under the despot.  This may sound callous bordering on bigotry but some countries are so full of ignorant people, incapable of self-government that they need a strong-arm to keep things in order. I believe the jury is out on whether the world is better off without Hussein, Mubarek and Gaddafi. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention knows that Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai is a bad joke. And now what are we doing? We are seriously contemplating a contribution to the demise of Syria’s Assad with zero knowledge of what will follow his departure.

Is the lesson this teaches us here at home limited to foreign policy? No it isn’t. A smart electorate can become a dumb electorate. Dumb people get leaders who end up not acting in their best interests. Dumb people end up losing their freedom. I argue we are becoming a dumb people and I say this in a totally bipartisan way.

In the past week I have watched several exchanges on television that left me very unnerved. Bill Moyers interviewed Glenn Greenwald a journalist who has written about the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistle blowers. The government tactics range from intimidation to criminal prosecution. According to Greenwald, more whistle blowers have been harassed by this administration than any other administration combined. Recent developments suggest that those offering evidence on the Benghazi terrorist attack of 9/11/12 that was contrary to the government account were being shut down. I have spent some time on this blog and in the comments section defending Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Benghazi affair but when a mainstream show like “Face the Nation” this morning reports that the administration knowingly lied or distorted the facts about Benghazi how can there be any more defense? In fact, we risked endangering our relationship with the new President of Libya by essentially calling him a liar when he said the attack on the embassy was planned.

Then a few nights later a PBS “Frontline” report talked about America post-9/11 and painted a picture of a government shrouded in secrecy doing things in “America’s best interest” without their permission. This policy was passed on to the Obama administration and expanded by him. Billions of our e-mails are read every day by folks employed in Homeland Security.

Later in the week HBO’s Bill Maher interviewed Jeremy Scahill, a reporter whose eyes burn with anger when he recounts how we brazenly killed the 16 year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki simply for being the son of a terrorist instigator. Press Secretary at the time, Robert Gibbs, reportedly said this is what happens when your Dad does bad things. Scahill seems to be alone while most liberals turn a blind eye to a liberal administration flushing liberal ideals down the toilet.  Scahill went on to discuss the near indiscriminate killing of Afghan civilians by our special ops forces. As Scahill puts it, if someone steals your goat, you can report them to the Americans as a suspected terrorist and our special ops team will storm their house and kill everyone in it.

Later on that same broadcast an argument broke out, so brief that if you blinked you missed it. Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC uber-liberal, flew off the handle when conservative guest Pete Hegseth launched the old 2nd Amendment defense of an electorate needing to protect itself from government tyranny. O’Donnell said what I have been saying for years … and very recently in the comments section of this very blog, namely that the time for us to be worried about government tyranny is long past. Our well oiled democracy has built-in safeguards that ensure government tyranny would never happen. Along with that is the ironic and contradictory side argument that all of our US militias would never be a match against a government armed with drones and nukes — that same government that would never resort to tyranny. Essentially “they would never be tyrants but if they were you’d be no match for them.”

Well, I’m no longer so sure O’Donnell is right. We saw a militarization in Boston a few weeks ago that should give us all pause. When asked if America would ever drone strike its own people, Attorney General Eric Holder’s initial response was a hypothetical yes. He only backed off after an old-fashioned filibuster by Senator Rand Paul focused attention on it. Combine this with the other stories I watched this week, and we no longer have the liberal ideal of America that I vote for every four years.

But beyond all that, we have a conservative populace with a sizable number of folks who still don’t believe Barack Obama was born in America and a liberal populace too ignorant to understand that universal background checks (which I support) would have done nothing to prevent the tragedy of Sandy Hook. We are, as a nation, getting dumber and dumber. If we don’t turn this around, we will wake up one morning and not recognize the America in which we live. Our ignorance will be the food that one day nourishes a true despot.


Poster from National Archives