Illustration by Sam Island
Illustration by Sam Island

Many stupid things have been said by people who should have known better in the month since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The raid -- in which heavily armed men with suspected links to al-Qaeda killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American personnel -- is being portrayed by some Republicans as an event approaching the attacks of Sept. 11 in importance, and by some Democrats as an unfortunate little mishap that says absolutely nothing about President Barack Obama’s competence and credibility, or about the state of the American war on al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

The attack could have been used to teach various useful lessons about al-Qaeda’s resilience, about human fallibility, about the limits of security and the imprecision of intelligence.

Instead, in this pathologically politicized climate, our national leadership is most interested in identifying scapegoats to fire and points to score in advance of elections next month.

Foolish Statements

Two of the most foolish statements about the Benghazi attack have come from the Obama campaign’s deputy manager, Stephanie Cutter, and from Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, who led a House oversight committee hearing on the attack last week.

First up, Cutter, who said on CNN that “the entire reason that this has become the political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It’s a big part of their stump speech and it’s reckless and irresponsible.”

An ambassador is killed and Cutter thinks that the “entire reason” his death has become a political issue is Mitt Romney?

It is true that early in the crisis, Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, intervened prematurely and inappropriately. But Cutter would have us believe that the rules of presidential campaigning preclude candidates from criticizing the actions of their opponents.

And members of the Obama administration have certainly opened themselves up to criticism, first by asserting that the attack on the consulate grew from a spontaneous demonstration against an offensive YouTube video, then by continuing to make this assertion long after it ceased to be credible.

A more subtle criticism not yet fully grasped by the Romney campaign is that the administration was predisposed to believe that an al-Qaeda-affiliated group couldn’t have been behind the attack because the administration had already, according to its own public-relations team, vanquished al-Qaeda. Obama has set al-Qaeda back substantially -- he has done more to dismantle its upper ranks than President George W. Bush did -- but in my conversations with partisans of the administration, you’d think the terrorist group had been reduced to three guys in a cave with a dial-up connection. It hasn’t been.

Republicans, contra Cutter, have the right, and the responsibility, to ask what went wrong in Benghazi, especially because Democrats seem so uninterested in asking. What Republicans shouldn’t do is make statements like the one Issa made on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Oct. 14. Issa argued that if security officials had repeatedly requested reinforcements for U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya “and that’s not being heard, then it isn’t just Ambassador Stevens who is now dead -- it’s everybody who works throughout the Middle East is at risk.”

Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and 12 years after the fatal raid on the USS Cole in Yemen, and Issa has just realized that assignment to the Middle East might pose risks for American government personnel!

Digging a Moat

Here’s the problem with Issa’s stunning insight: In his desire to cast the administration as incompetent, he does an enormous disservice to the cause of forward-leaning diplomacy and engagement. American embassies are already fortresses. Issa would dig a moat around them. After a point, there’s simply no reason to dispatch diplomats to hostile capitals if they can’t engage with actual citizens. Risk is inherent for U.S. diplomats posted to the Middle East.

The answer to the problem posed by the Benghazi attack isn’t to swaddle our overseas personnel in ever more elaborate layers of security. The answer is better intelligence and a willingness to talk straight about risk.

Our leaders -- of both parties -- have systematically infantilized Americans to believe that perfect security is attainable. This is one reason the White House reacts so defensively to any intimation that its conduct of the war on al-Qaeda is less than perfect. It’s one reason Republicans cynically argue that the administration is incompetent in its prosecution of the war, and in its mission to keep U.S. personnel alive. So long as both parties react so small-mindedly and opportunistically to the terrorist threat, we won’t be able to have a rational, adult conversation about the best ways to wage this war.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.