The Buck Stops There

As I noted in my newsletter for RealClearPolitics, Mitt Romney’s failure in the second debate to drive home his criticism of President Obama on the 9/11 attacks in Benghazi (with a little ref interference from Candy Crowley) does not put an end to the issue. Instead, it “tees up the Libya debacle as a prime subject for next Monday’s debate.”

But there are already a few folks who are trying to shut down debate on Libya. That includes the Obama campaign, which is denouncing Romney for “politicizing” the issue.

Boo-hoo. You went into politics; you’re running a political campaign; you routinely inject your candidate, a politician, into all sort of normally non-political arenas, from late-night comedy shows to NCAA brackets; you declare your opponent unfit for office because of everything from his investment accounts to how he treats his dog; and now suddenly you’re shocked that your guy’s actual performance as commander-in-chief is going to be “politicized”?

The hypocrisy is obvious, as is the self-serving motive for it. But it gets worse. These complaints show a basic failure to understand the American system of government. Given the constitutional role of the president, this is precisely the sort of issue on which voters should be questioning him and holding him accountable.

What is the purpose of a presidential election, anyway? It is to evaluate the performance of the president and replace him if we think the other guy can do better. But on many issues the president’s responsibility is mostly indirect. Crime and education, for example, have a lot more to do with decisions made by local governments, which actually run police departments and schools, than with the actions of the federal government. And even on truly national issues, the president’s agenda is dependent on his dealings with the legislative branch. As the old saying goes, the president proposes and Congress disposes. (At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Just don’t ask president Obama, who keeps vowing to “bypass” Congress.)

But when it comes to military strategy and foreign policy, that is the one area where the president exercises nearly unlimited authority. Congress can decide the size of his budget and approve or deny his appointees, but it cannot tell him specifically what to do. A wise president, of course, stays in close consultation with Congress and cultivates its support for his policies. (In this respect, President Obama has not been especially wise.) But no one else can dictate, for example, where to devote the State Department’s resources. No one else but the president and his spokesmen and appointees, such as the Secretary of State or the ambassador to the United Nations, can speak on behalf of the United States government and announce its position on an international incident. And precisely because the president has such full authority on these issues, he bears full responsibility. The buck stops there.

All of this applies with even greater force to Libya, where President Obama not only exercised his constitutional prerogatives but exceeded them, committing the U.S. to military action against the Gaddafi regime without authorization from or consultation with Congress. Having done so, there was an extra obligation on him to make a personal commitment to oversee the aftermath of the war in Libya. This was his project, and he was responsible for doing his best to make sure it turned out well.

I supported the Libya mission, by the way, though I disagreed with the way President Obama went about it. Nor am I one of those conservatives who think that all the Arab Spring has done is to unleash Islamists. I certainly think that if you find yourself pining over the gold old days when the Mad Dog ran Libya, it’s time to turn in your conservative hawk credentials.

But if the US is going to throw our support behind the Arab Spring, have to follow that up with plenty of support and encouragement for the good guys. It requires more vigorous diplomacy, a greater effort to exert US influence, and the deployment of more of our resources. Yet Obama has been giving us less.

That’s what I found most damning about a set of documents just released detailing repeated requests for more personnel and more security in Benghazi. What shocked me was the numbers involved: the requests talk about movements of as few as three or five people. Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom complained in February that “we have had multiple times previously had no movements in Benghazi because we had only 2 [Diplomatic Security] agents on the ground. Having no movements for upwards for 10 days severely limits operations in Benghazi.” By contrast, the British had “a 5 person team assigned to just their head of mission, so they have made a commitment to maintain a larger presence in Benghazi than the [US government].”

Having launched an air war to overthrow a tyrant in favor of a new government, the administration seems to have totally ignored Libya and devoted no significant resources to help establish order there and to support the new government. Consider that the left spent years heaping abuse on President Bush for bungling the occupation of Iraq, and then ask whether it is acceptable to criticize President Obama for his bungling of post-war Libya.

Then there was the administration’s muddled message after the September 11 attack in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. A good timeline of this story shows how the administration was originally vague, cautious, and equivocal, not directly stating that the ambassador’s killing was a terrorist attack, but not explicitly ruling it out. Then three days after the attacks, the administration began insisting quite clearly that it was all just a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video, only to have that story fall apart a week later.

If you think this is all harmless and can just be chalked up to the “fog of war,” note what happens when the Leader of the Free World gives credence to the idea that a YouTube video about Mohamed is a legitimate popular grievance in the Muslim world. Last week, there was a mass demonstration outside Google’s London headquarters demanding that the company, which owns YouTube, ban the video. Organizers have promised to follow up with more anti-Google protests, and across the Muslim world we’re hearing increasing demands for Western countries to adopt blasphemy laws that ban criticism of Islam.

In criticizing President Obama’s policy in Libya prior to these attacks, or his response to those attacks, we should acknowledge that the president is not directly responsible for every little decision. He’s the CEO, not the mail boy. But as the CEO, it’s his job to set a direction for the people under him. And the evidence indicates that the direction he set for our Libya policy was fire-and-forget: bomb Libya, get rid of the regime—and then walk away and ignore it. The result was that State Department officials were reluctant to allocate more resources to Libya or to bring their concerns to the top levels of the administration.

Nor should we expect omniscience or infallibility. In war, the enemy gets a vote. We’re not going to be able to predict or prevent every attack, nor are we going to be able to figure out exactly what happened immediately afterwards. But again, the president sets the direction, and if he and his top officials spent a solid week loudly broadcasting a view of the attacks that was dubious from the beginning, then this was a significant failure.

Maybe they were just repeating CIA talking points—which somehow never excused President Bush. Or then again, maybe the US military could have helped in Benghazi, but because of bureaucratic inertia, they weren’t given the orders to move.

The larger point is that these are all legitimate questions. Remember that this is an area where the president makes the decisions and answers to no one—except the American people. If the president makes a series of bad decisions in foreign policy, whether through incompetence, malfeasance, or ideological bias, there is only one real check on his actions: removal by the voters at the ballot box. So a crisis like the Benghazi attack is precisely the kind of incident that ought to be a campaign issue.

Politicization? This is what politics is for.

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