Watch out Dems: Don't underestimate the conservative "Benghazi scandal" narrative. It isn't irrational, trivial or vacuous. It serves to support four very important attacks on Obama. As a result, conservatives are going to play it for all that its worth.
Democrats have observed with a great deal of puzzlement the extent to which conservatives are currently pushing the notion that the events in Benghazi represent a major, potentially game changing and reputation-destroying scandal for the Obama administration.
After all, from a Democratic perspective it seems entirely obvious that the administration had no possible motive for stripping its own ambassador of sufficient security protection nor any cynical election campaign reason to attempt to conceal the fact that the attackers were an organized terrorist group. Democrats logically assume that an impartial investigation will indeed reveal significant failures to properly anticipate the danger somewhere in the military-diplomatic chain of command and also clarify why the initial public description of the attackers by the CIA was revised as time went by. But Dems have great difficulty understanding why conservatives imagine that such an investigation will somehow deeply discredit the administration.
As several progressive commentators have recently asked: "Do the critics really think Obama and his administration deliberately exposed their own ambassador to assassination?" "Do they really think there was some huge political benefit for Obama in describing the attackers as 'extremists' rather than 'terrorists' for two weeks during the campaign? " "My god, just what the devil are they actually implying - the whole thing simply doesn't make any sense?"
Unfortunately, however, it actually does make perfect sense. Conservatives have four very important objectives they can realistically hope to achieve, even if not one of the parallel investigations now planned find even the slightest culpability at the top levels of the administration's foreign policy team where Obama or his major military and diplomatic advisors could be directly implicated.
1. the narrative destroys the image of Obama as the tough, competent President "who finally got Bin Laden."
It is impossible for Democrats to fully visualize how hideously painful and infuriating it is for conservatives every time the man they genuinely and seriously imagine to be a cowardly, anti-American radical who gleefully bows to our enemies and sabotages our friends is described as "the President who finally got bin laden" and whose authorization of drone warfare is widely credited with effectively weakening the terrorist threat.
The conservative Benghazi narrative -- if one accepts it - undermines this image and replaces it with a story of incompetence, weakness and timidity. Specific facts may add some detail and texture to this story but in reality, for conservatives there really does not need to be any concrete proof that this description is accurate. Conservatives already "know" it is true by a process of infallible logical deduction: The image simply must be true because a spineless president like Obama and his appointees could not possibly have responded in any other way.
This alternative right-wing narrative of incompetence, weakness and timidity also serves to finally overwrite the lingering memory of the massive intelligence failures around 9/11 and Saddam's nonexistent nuclear weapons. Although fair-minded observers will think it absurd to treat the Benghazi attack as a failure of equal magnitude to those fiascos, even the briefest perusal of conservative commentary will reveal that this is precisely what they now choose to passionately believe.
2. The narrative exonerates the inflammatory anti-Muslim documentary of any responsibility.
Religious conservatives in particular were outraged when it became obvious that an anti-Muslim documentary produced in America had generated widespread anger and protest across the Middle East and was being criticized even in America as an distorted and unnecessary provocation. When the early descriptions of the attacks on the embassy linked those widespread spontaneous protests against the video to the assault, it was doubly infuriating.
From this point of view, the fact that the attack on the embassy was in fact premeditated and not directly part of the spontaneous protests against the video is a vital concept for religious conservatives to assert in order to defend the much more general principle that attacks on Islam, no matter how inflammatory or distorted, must never be considered irresponsible and must never be held responsible for any negative consequences they may produce.
3. The narrative creates a permanent anti-Obama headline-generating scandal machine.
Back in the 1990's, in the 10 year, multi-million dollar "whitewater" real estate investigation that never found any evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Bill or Hillary Clinton, conservatives perfected the tactic of what might be called the "permanent vacuous investigation." They perceived that producing any actual crimes was entirely unnecessary. The process of investigation itself was hugely effective in undermining an administration.
After all, the staging and theatrics of an investigation inherently provides endless opportunities for conservatives to pose as fearless seekers of truth and investigators of wrongdoing, for delivering withering speeches implying that vast crimes are soon to be exposed and for generating a permanent flow of media headlines, sound-bites and TV reports all critical of the administration. The simple fact that an investigation is occurring ironically appears to many people as proof that some kind of wrongdoing must have occurred. And, of course, there is always the possibility that a wide-ranging "fishing expedition" might accidentally turn up something that can be exploited.
The mechanics of exploiting the investigation process are not complex. Each witness, each testimony and each question necessarily establish the basis for demanding additional witnesses, testimonies and questions. This process can already be seen developing in the Benghazi investigation. General Petraeus in his testimony indicated that the decision to change the term "terrorist" to "extremist" was made within the national security apparatus and was not ordered by the oval office. Republican congressmen who had implied such direct interference quickly switched to demanding to know "who" within the security apparatus made the decision and who in the White House might have known about it. From here, the entirely predictable next stage will be to ask if the person or persons who made the decision to change the wording "were in contact" with anyone in the White House. E-mail records and sworn testimony will be described as vital to answering this question. If the individuals were only in contact with individuals in the White House with whom they were properly supposed to be in contact, the next question will then be who were those proper individuals themselves in contact with. What e-mails did they send and receive. And so on.
In short, the investigation will become a perpetual motion machine, one that places the targets of the investigation in an inescapable double bind. If they object to a "fishing expedition" they can be charged with engaging in a "cover-up," if they agree, each testimony and record release simply sets the stage for the investigators to pose additional questions and seek additional disclosure.
In the meantime, the "fearless and intrepid truth seekers" are provided with endless opportunities to crank up the investigatory cliché machine, "I promise I will not rest until we get to the bottom of this," "these new revelations raise more question than they answer" "this new material proves that something very wrong going on," "the whole truth has to come out" etc, ad nauseum. This is a process that - as Whitewater demonstrated - can go on for months and years.
The perpetual investigation machine serves two ongoing purposes for the conservative media. It continually reinforces the conservative framing they seek to impose on the administration and it provides a constant stream of new material for conservative columnists and commentators.
It can, in fact, be quite confidently predicted that, if the investigation is allowed to extend indefinitely, two years from now there will be over 200 segments on Fox News devoted to the subject and 3000 major references to it in speeches by conservative spokesmen and Republican politicians. Even if not a single "smoking gun" is found, it will become a major, permanent part of the national political narrative.
4. Weakening Obama's position in relation to Netanyahu.
There is deep concern among conservatives and the GOP that Benjamin Netanyahu's unprecedented partisan intervention in the 2012 election has deeply weakened his influence with Obama and his level of support in the United States. Attacks on Obama based on the Benghazi attacks, although they do not have any direct bearing on U.S. Israeli relations or U.S. policy toward Iran and the occupied territories, can be used as partisan wedges against Obama. The conservative and GOP sound-bites are predictable: "The Obama administration -- its utter and total incompetence exposed by the Benghazi scandal -- is certainly in no position to lecture the Israelis on the Middle East" "Obama, the incompetent 'bungler of Benghazi' should do whatever a "real" anti-terrorist like Netanyahu wants him to do" And so it will go.
What Can Dems Do?
As this makes clear, even in the absence of any evidence of White House or top advisor error in the Benghazi attack, conservatives and the GOP have four very real and practical reasons for prolonging and inflating the inquiry.
But what can Dems do? A legitimate, non-partisan investigation is entirely appropriate and necessary as it is in all cases of military and/or security failures. But how can Dems effectively object when conservatives and the GOP attempt to turn it into a right-wing propaganda-fest and partisan fishing expedition?
One key tactic should be to carefully challenge conservative and GOP figures to distinguish between legitimate inquiry and fishing expedition. This can be accomplished by demanding clear answers to questions like the following:
1. Will you publically apologize to any government officials whose reputations are impugned in the course of the investigation and who are later shown to be innocent of any wrongdoing or error?
2. Describe what specific measures will you take now to make sure this investigation does not become another Whitewater - a 10 year multimillion dollar boondoggle and waste of taxpayer money that turned up no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
3. Will you insist that the investigation be at least 50% focused on developing recommendations for preventing such tragedies in the future or will you try to make it entirely devoted to seeking scapegoats and assigning blame.
The answers to these questions will "smoke out" the partisan warriors from among the legitimate investigators. People seeking legitimate answers to what happened in Benghazi should have absolutely no problem providing acceptable answers to all these questions. Partisan warriors seeking only to score partisan debating points, on the other hand, will twist, slither and turn like political Burmese pythons to avoid directly answering them.