President Obama has long described the political aftermath of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, as a “sideshow,” a running series of partisan theatrics designed to embarrass the administration and inflame the conservative base.
It is now, for the first time in nearly two years, at the center of the American political conversation on terms Obama very much favors.
The weekend capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the suspected ringleaders of the Sept. 11, 2012, assaults on a U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA-run annex, gives Obama another I-told-you-so moment in Washington’s scorekeeping culture.
But the achievement is likely to do little to tamp down the partisan fervor surrounding the administration’s public management of the deadly Benghazi attacks, a still-raw political legacy of the 2012 presidential campaign that continues to preoccupy Republican lawmakers and their most ardent supporters on the right.
How Obama decides to talk about Abu Khattala’s capture in the coming weeks may close the alternately infuriating and baffling episode for many Americans beyond the Beltway. Obama promised to bring to justice the killers of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and now, one of the alleged culprits is in U.S. hands.
“It’s important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice,” the president said Tuesday at an event in Pittsburgh. “That’s a message I sent the day after it happened, and regardless of how long it takes, we will find you. I want to make sure everyone around the world hears that message very clearly.”
For many in Washington, though, Benghazi has never been primarily about the attacks.
The capture does little to explain how the administration devised a set of “talking points,” requested at the time by members of Congress prepping for news media questions, that Republicans have come to view as a politically calculated obfuscation that helped shield Obama’s reelection effort from criticism.
That has been the Republican emphasis — and it is likely to remain so, given that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, warming up to the idea of a presidential run in 2016, remains vulnerable. Recent polling suggests that much of the public, despite administration protests that the issue is a distraction from more pressing concerns, wants additional answers.
Within hours of the news that Abu Khattala had been captured, congressional Republicans congratulated the U.S. military, if not the White House.
But the partisan concern shifted quickly to the questions of where Abu Khattala would be held, at a time when Obama is seeking to shutter the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and whether the president would extend legal protections given to civilians charged with crimes.
The answers from the administration — no to Guantanamo, yes to due process — disappointed some prominent conservatives.
“The American people and the families of the victims deserve answers on this attack,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. “As with all detained al Qaeda affiliated extremists, I hope Abu Khattala will be treated as an enemy combatant and interrogated to the fullest extent possible. Obtaining information and intelligence from this terrorist must be our first priority.”
The capture recalls the May 2011 mission in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, a measured gamble that focused public opinion around Obama’s foreign policy competence and commitment to respect the legacy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
It convinced most voters that the president elected to end the nation’s post-9/11 wars could still fight overseas, using intelligence, Special Operations forces and drones rather than vast armies. The public at the time agreed, pushing up his approval rating by nearly double digits within days of the bin Laden raid.
But like that one, this operation, too, may have a short-lived political benefit.
National security tactics and American global strategy are vastly different matters, and Obama’s foreign-policy-by-Special-Ops has proved in the past to have a political shelf life far shorter than he would like. The nine-point bump Obama received in the polls in the days after announcing bin Laden’s death had evaporated a month later.
Iraq, the nation’s most controversial post-9/11 project, is crumbling along sectarian lines under the crush of an armed Sunni Muslim insurgency. Syria is failing as a state, both in its governance and its territorial structure, with its eastern border fading as a line in Iraq’s western desert.
Post-revolution and now post-coup Egypt is again in the hands of the kind of military strongman Obama had pledged to no longer support in the name of stability. A newly ambitious Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine — and appears to be feeling little pressure to return it under U.S.-led international economic sanctions.
The American public has noticed, even as its post-9/11 wars come to an end. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published this month found that 41 percent of Americans approve of the way Obama manages international affairs, the lowest rating of his presidency.
But it is more than simply the array of faltering foreign places currently occupying Obama’s foreign policy agenda that may make the capture less important than the White House might hope.
It is also the nature of Benghazi, now like a Brazilian soccer star who needs only a single name, as a political issue that makes it particularly resistant to resolution.
Since the attacks, Benghazi has become the angry shorthand used by conservatives to describe what many of them view as Obama’s politically calibrated — and often feckless — foreign policy.
The assault, found to be a coordinated attack made amid the confusion provided by an anti-American demonstration, occurred during a bitter reelection contest.
In a race largely about the U.S. economy, Obama nonetheless relied on a reputation for competence and pragmatism in managing foreign affairs, as well as a national security policy that while reducing American forces abroad had “decimated,” in his words, al-Qaeda’s leadership.
Benghazi challenged Obama’s contention that he had al-Qaeda on the run.
Most worrisome to the president’s political team was Benghazi’s fading effect on the glow still surrounding the bin Laden mission, which Obama had celebrated a few months earlier with a series of speeches and campaign videos that made him a star of the story.
In the first days after the Benghazi assaults, the administration’s confused response began, in Washington and on the campaign trail at least, to seem to some Republicans as more significant than the security failure itself and what that failure said about Obama’s foreign policy. Stevens, 52, was the first serving U.S. ambassador killed in more than three decades.
Only a year earlier, Obama had opened a third U.S.-led war in a Muslim nation to protect the rebellious enclave of Benghazi from Moammar Gaddafi. Far from grateful, the city, seething as part of the wider anti-American unrest across the Islamic world, had turned sharply on its ostensible saviors.
Republicans focused on the administration’s messaging, rather than on whether Obama’s commitment to Libya had faltered or whether, even more essentially, his broader outreach to the Islamic word had been ill-conceived all along.
But recent polling has shown that Benghazi still resonates with much of the country, namely the questions many Republicans say remain unanswered despite a series of congressional hearings.
Those include where Obama was at the time of the attacks, how and why they were carried out, and who in the administration decided to emphasize a spontaneous protest as the root of the assaults rather than terrorist planning.
How raw and unresolved Benghazi remains, particularly on the right, was visible this week at a forum hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
A Muslim woman questioning the consensus view at the meeting that Islam is the enemy was challenged by an angry crowd, after hearing from panelists who, among other charges, accused Obama of seeking to impose sharia law in the United States.
Republicans in Congress have remained closer to the attacks and the administration’s response than some of their conservative supporters. But the level of persistence remains years and many committee hearings after the event.
Last week, members of Congress pressed FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. for a sense of the administration’s progress on finding Abu Khattala, part of the designated terrorist organization Ansar al-Sharia, and whether he believed the U.S. government had the legal authority to apprehend him if located.
“In terms of Benghazi and the perpetrators, would you say at this point that finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice is purely a matter for law enforcement?” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) asked Comey during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
“No,” Comey said. “I would say as in any case, especially terrorism cases, all instruments of U.S. power are brought to bear.”
“But is your understanding — because it is my understanding that the administration’s position is — that they do not have the legal authority to lethally engage Ansar al-Sharia or whoever you want to say committed those attacks?” Goodlatte persisted.
“I don’t want to talk about how I’m approaching that investigation because I don’t want to give anything away to the bad guys,” Comey said.
On Tuesday, Obama had a new set of talking points about Benghazi and its epilogue.
Like congressional Republicans, he thanked the military, law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community for the mission. He also sought to head off accusations that he is moving on from Benghazi, saying the pursuit of all those behind the attacks will proceed.
“We will remain vigilant against all acts of terrorism,” Obama said in a statement, echoing the phrase he first used in the Rose Garden the day after the assaults, “and we will continue to prioritize the protection of our service members and civilians overseas.”