Obama’s secrecy on issues from drone strikes to (until recently) Benghazi talking points is disappointing for a president who promised the most open administration in history, but it hardly rises to Nixonian levels. Indeed, Obama seems about as open on internal White House and administration matters as his recent predecessors — which is to say, not much. Even so, the broad forces now undercutting him have also harmed past presidents. The so-called scandals, and the “Nixonian” charge, are not without consequences.
With their party on a presidential losing streak, Republicans in Congress are seizing any opportunity to damage the White House by pumping up its missteps, big or small, into Watergate-like proportions. Such tactics are hardly unique to the GOP, of course; Democrats took a similar approach toward Bush on issues such as Sept. 11 investigations, weapons of mass destruction and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
At congressional hearings, Republicans have called witnesses who push the notion of an administration cover-up of the Benghazi debacle. Obama has fired the acting IRS commissioner, but we should brace for more hearings on the IRS as well as the Associated Press phone records.
On all these fronts, the Obama administration has made matters worse for itself. It initially failed to give a straightforward account of its response to the Benghazi attack, which killed four Americans. The Justice Department’s seizure of AP phone records is an affront to civil liberties. And news that the IRS targeted tea party and other anti-big-government groups for special scrutiny — actions that the president has called “inexcusable” — only strengthens the perception on the right that Obama’s government has become a leviathan. Carney’s efforts to distance the White House from the Justice Department, the IRS and, to a lesser extent, the CIA and the State Department give the impression of a bureaucracy run amok.
But none of this even come close to Watergate. There are far more apt and instructive analogies.
If anything, the tragedy in Benghazi recalls Reagan’s failed effort to tame Lebanon’s civil war — resulting in the suicide truck bombing that killed 241 Marines and other U.S. troops in 1983 — and Clinton’s disastrous military operation in Somalia, where 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis died in the Battle of Mogadishu. During Gerald Ford’s presidency, a Palestinian separatist group killed the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Francis Meloy, and his economic adviser, Robert Waring, and sniper fire killed Ambassador Rodger Davies in Cyprus.
Putting U.S. soldiers, spies and diplomats into civil wars or politically volatile situations in weak states is a fraught and sometimes deadly enterprise. The kind of limited military and diplomatic actions that Reagan, Clinton and Obama took in Beirut, Mogadishu and Benghazi, respectively, all failed because of flawed strategies and inadequate security precautions. These parallels, more than any Nixonian cover-up, are most salient to the Benghazi debacle.