After their Benghazi report landed with a thud in Washington on Tuesday, Republicans in Congress face an important decision. They can double down on the conspiracy theories, and try to keep the so-called scandal alive in an effort to hurt Hillary Clinton in November. Or they can recognize that the party’s continuing obsession with Benghazi only hurts itself and does nothing to help national security or the American people.
The killing of a US diplomat and three other Americans in the Libyan city of Benghazi in 2012 was a tragedy. Libya was — and remains — a chaotic place. As the latest report yet again shows, the State Department under Clinton did not “stand down,” and US military forces in Europe could not have reached the city in time to stop the attack.
How did an incident four years ago ever result in this much attention from Congress? It’s important to recall the context in which the Benghazi attack became a political controversy in the first place. The incident initially looked like a political liability for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who mishandled the news by launching an immediate attack on President Obama that looked like an attempt to politicize a tragedy. The effort to recharacterize it as a scandal started off as damage control, and then grew into a lurid conspiracy theory.
The truth did occasionally slip out. A senior GOP leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy, more or less acknowledged last year that the congressional inquiry, which lasted longer than even the September 11 investigation, was intended to hurt Clinton’s presidential chances.
Now, politics is a rough business, and neither party is above blowing issues out of proportion if they believe it suits them. But the track record suggests that Benghazi has instead boomeranged on the Republicans. The very word has become synonymous with partisan excess, in the same way “Whitewater” ended up costing the Republicans more than it ever hurt Bill Clinton. When the issue came up in the 2012 debates, it was Romney, not Obama, who ended up looking foolish.
Finally, the Republicans privately gnashing their teeth about the emergence of Donald Trump as their presumptive presidential nominee ought to consider how their own choice to legitimize “issues” like Benghazi created an environment in which Trump could prosper. For short-term political reasons, Republicans haven chosen to inflame faux scandals they know have no substance — Benghazi, Fast and Furious, etc. When, inevitably, the response to these “scandals” fails to match the rhetoric, it fuels the perception that they are backing down from Obama.
If leading Republicans despise Trump as much as they claim, they need to stop making it so easy for him by flogging fake scandals like Benghazi. Meanwhile, Democrats can only hope that, in Obama’s words, they please proceed.