Green Room

President’s team politicizes Benghazi

posted at 7:51 am on October 16, 2012 by


Three years ago this month, the picture above appeared in the media, accompanying an article about President Obama’s first trip to Dover Air Force Base as remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan were returned to native soil. The story mentioned the president made the trip as he considered a new policy for the region. The New York Times swooned:

The trip was a symbolic one for Mr. Obama, given the gravity of his coming announcement of a new strategy for Afghanistan.

The  ban on pictures of the war dead had been lifted, and many conservatives viewed his visit to Dover that fall as politically motivated. After all, there was no policy reason for going. And if he wished to console family members, he could have done so without photographers present. Several families of deceased soldiers declined to have their loved ones’ remains photographed for the visit and subsequent story.

This is the same president whose team is now accusing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of politicizing the terrorist attack in Libya that killed an American ambassador and several other security and foreign service workers.

The sorrow experienced by family members of the deceased must be deep. The mother of a former Navy Seal killed in Benghazi has asked Romney to stop mentioning her son, a request he’s honored. She’s not a Romney supporter, and he did the right thing in dropping her brave son’s story from his campaign tales. Now, the ambassador’s father is also asking that his son’s death not to be politicized.

 “It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue,” Jan Stevens, 77, said in a telephone interview from his home in Loomis, California, as he prepares for a memorial service for his son next week.

Jan Stevens, the article notes, is a registered Democrat, and surely one can understand how it would be particularly painful to have his son’s death become part of a political discussion that could hurt the candidate of the party he favors. But are these family feelings now becoming part of political talking points?

MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell included Ambassador Stevens’s father’s request when she interviewed Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell on Monday about the upcoming presidential debate and Romney’s attacks on the president regarding the Benghazi fiasco:

Let me just ask you quickly about the mother of Glen Daugherty, the former SEAL that was killed, and the father of Ambassador Stevens speaking to Bloomberg News and both saying please do not politicize the deaths of our sons. Do you think it should be off limits for the campaigns?

Here’s the clip (usual warning: MSNBC embeds an ad in it first):


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Continuing with this theme, Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today,  also noted Mr. Stevens’s request that his son’s death not be politicized.

The pain of the grieving families should not, of course, be dismissed. But neither should it be used as a political talking point by an administration unwilling to be completely forthcoming.

All of this led me to ponder: Will this be the president’s way of addressing the Benghazi issue during the debate? Will he try to shame Romney for allegedly politicizing the deaths of brave Americans? Will the president stoop so low as to hide behind the grief of deeply mourning parents?

If so, let’s hope the Romney team doesn’t flinch. Unlike the president’s visit to Dover three years ago this month, the discussion of the terrorist attack in Benghazi has legitimate implications for future policy—both military and diplomatic.

Broader still, it has implications for the president’s overall management style. Is he such a hands-off manager that he lets those pesky security types operate without his direct supervision or even knowledge of their activities, feeling comfortable enough to run off to a fundraiser the day after the murder of a US Ambassador?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now taking responsibility—to a degree—for the weak Benghazi security. The State Department, she says, is ultimately responsible for security matters at embassies and consulates, and it’s not an issue that rises to the level of the president or vice president’s attention. Of course, the Benghazi debacle isn’t just about security. Cleverly, her statement makes a pre-emptive strike against the “politicization” of the issue:

“I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she added, noting that it is close to the election.

Sly wording, that. It makes those who ask questions appear as little more than craven opportunists.

The problem for the Obama team, however, is that politicians aren’t the only ones asking questions. Journalists are, too.

And some of those questions are actually about the president’s own possible politicization of the attack. Specifically, did he know it was not related to the offensive video about Mohammed when he sent UN Ambassador Susan Rice on multiple Sunday talk shows to say that it was? Did he and his team want the country to think that al Qaeda threats are in the “taken care of” column? Was he afraid that the truth would hurt his chances in November, tainting his team’s bumper-sticker claim that “Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive”?

As was demonstrated three years ago this month, the president isn’t above that kind of shameless politicization, even when families of those who’ve given their lives in service to their county are grieving.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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