The biggest scandal regarding Benghazi may be that the president was not at the helm on 9-11-2011 and was not directing the response to an attack. His aides insist he was getting updates, but the president is supposed to be more than an inbox for messages from his advisers. Was he peppering them with questions? Was he insisting they run through the available rescue options? The answer to both seems to be no, and for that dereliction of duty he needs to be held accountable. Maybe he would have been more accurate in his statements after the fact if he had had been plugged in and paying attention during the attacks.

President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)
President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Likewise, the president’s apparent inattention to the deteriorating security situation in Libya suggests that he, once again, was not in command. He was a passenger on the ship of state. Hillary Clinton wanted to go in; let her keep an eye on it.

With Obama it is all stagecraft and no state craft. He’ll chest-thump about the assassination of Osama bin Laden and be happy to leak details of “kill lists” (president, with brow furrowed, sits deciding life-and-death issues), but in fact he’s mostly talk. In this light we can see that part of the motive for cracking down on the media is to eliminate and deter information-gathering that is not White House-approved. It’s fine to leak favorable images and information. But if the media dare to put forth data that are inconsistent with his play-acting, then the retribution is fierce and swift.

That is most apparent with regard to Iran and Syria. Obama talks a big game on the former (“unacceptable” to have a nuclear weapon), but his policy is adrift. Iran moves swiftly toward acquiring nuclear capability. On Syria, Obama talks tough but is paralyzed when it comes to action. Elliott Abrams perfectly captures the blather we hear:

“Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, but there are no good answers. It is so complex. The rebels are such a mixed bag; there are thousands of jihadists, so how can you really support giving arms to that side? You’d never know who was getting them. And we don’t want to raise the level of violence. We do support them; we give them money and other things, and we are in contact all the time with them through our embassies, and now through the CIA too. The answer here is to persuade the Russians that Assad must go in the end, and get them to ease him out; those discussions with the Russians continue. Lots of countries have interests here and they need to be balanced. American intervention would be a nightmare; after all, the Syrians have a very developed air defense system and we could lose pilots. And in the end Syria will be a mess. Anyway, what legal basis do we have to intervene, without a Security Council resolution?”

In other words, he’s not interested in really being commander in chief; he just likes to play one on TV. He “ends” wars as if it doesn’t matter whether they are won or lost, whether aims are achieved or not. Ending a war requires a single order; running a successful one requires constant attention and effort and expenditure of political capital. It also forces one to come to grips with the tough decisions his predecessor made.

In the case of Syria, Obama must be grateful indeed that while he is ducking and playing police detective (no chain of custody!), the Israelis have acted in ways to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons and made clear it will not tolerate movement of WMDs and/or further militarization of Hezbollah. If not for Israel, the pressure on Obama to do something (heaven forbid!) would be even greater. I hope he has properly thanked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (He’ll need him again to spare his legacy — “who lost Iran?” — when the Israelis eventually need to eliminate the Iranian threat.)

The president’s eerie detachment from actual events and hyper-concern about image have led to a series of foreign policy blunders on everything from Iraq (no status-of-forces agreement) to Benghazi to Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it has led to the unprecedented crackdown on the media.

The secret drone war may be less than meets the eye. (We don’t know since it’s all a secret.) In any case, it is no substitute for a coherent foreign policy, for a network of information-gathering, the proper funding of the military and the willingness, when appropriate, to use American hard power.

In some ways Obama wants to have it both ways: He’ll not be George W. Bush, but he is more secretive and less transparent than Bush was, and is unwilling to cooperate with Congress or tolerate an independent media. Bush and senior White House staff submitted to interviews with the 9/11 Commission; in this administration we can’t even figure out what Obama was doing on the night of the Benghazi attack. In short, Obama doesn’t want to do very much, but he wants to perpetrate the image of a tough guy.

The speak-loudly-carry-a-small-stick routine (and do it in secret) makes for bad policy. And it requires him to clamp down on the media, demonize critics, spin cover stories, stonewall investigators and control the message. For if he does not, it becomes apparent from a variety of figures not compelled to spin the Obama line just how poorly he is doing his job and how badly he has let threats get out of hand.

Bush made gutsy calls and never flinched from action, although his public diplomacy and communication skills were poor and he was racked by unremitting leaks. Still, that’s a better deal than a president who never wants to do much of anything but has been, until now, quite adept at snowing the public and abusing the media. Maybe if Obama’s policies were better he’d have to spin less and not crack down on the media.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.