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Opinion How Republicans blew it on Benghazi

There is plenty of evidence that the Obama administration less than two months before the November 2012 election tried to come up with a less damning explanation for the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. Ben Rhodes was the author of a memo that sought immediately to elevate the anti-Muslim video as the official narrative. The president stuck to that cover story up through his Sept. 25 speech at the United Nations, long after we understood this was a planned attack, the outgrowth of the chaos festering in the wake of the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi.

House Republicans released their report on the attack on the 2012 U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi on June 28. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Republicans investigating the Benghazi attack soon got lost in the weeds of the debacle, although their basic understanding was correct: It was far better for the White House politically to attribute all this to a fluke, a video, than to acknowledge that its Libya policy was a disaster, and moreover, that Islamic jihadism was spreading, not retreating.

The Benghazi Select Committee report, as my colleague Josh Rogin points out, reveals little in the way of new information other than that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was planning a trip to Benghazi: “Republicans see the revelation that Clinton was planning a trip to Libya and that [Ambassador J. Christopher] Stevens wanted to make the Benghazi mission permanent as evidence that she was trying to cement her legacy as a major proponent of the intervention to topple Moammar Gaddafi, but ignored several signs that the facility was unsafe.” Well, yes, but Republicans already made the point that Clinton wanted Libya to be part of her legacy. So?

The newest revelation actually suggests Clinton was unaware of how serious the security situation was. (Otherwise, why go?) And here is an illustration of how the Republicans have repeatedly missed the key failures at the heart of the Libyan episode:

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– The president had no interest in dedicating forces and preparing an after-victory plan in Libya, where he never wanted to act. This was the exact error Democrats accused Republicans of making in Iraq.

– Clinton was at best a negligent manager, too removed from the situation in Libya and lacking a system to elevate critical issues (e.g. Ambassador Stevens’s requests for help.) Her insistence on isolating herself within a close-knit cadre of advisers has its dangers, and this is a perfect illustration of the risk this management style entails.

– The entire administration was willfully indifferent to evidence contradicting their boast about putting al-Qaeda on its heels. Islamist terrorism was spreading, and the lead-from-behind notion that we could retreat and retrench without endangering our security was wrong.

That would have been hard for Democrats to dispute. It’s a damning indictment of the president’s policies, and Clinton should have been obliged to explain whether, as she did on Syria, she recognized at the time the developing disaster on their hands and advocated a course correction in Libya and elsewhere.

In the primary, Republicans including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), as well as Donald Trump, preaching to the neo-isolationist corner, got the argument wrong again. They rewrote the history of the Libyan civil war, leaving out the critical facts that the country was already in revolt, mass killings were underway and if Gaddafi remained, there would be no end to it, leaving the country a terrorist playground. (Some even went so far as to insist falsely Gaddafi was a good ally of the West.)

The mistake was not our minimal effort to speed up Gaddafi’s ouster by his own people, but in our negligence after he was gone. Paul, Cruz and Trump were essentially playing the same lead-from-behind game as Obama. We shouldn’t have gone in. Everything was fine before we got involved. Things go wrong when the U.S. acts. This had once again the effect of letting Obama and Clinton off the hook for the real mistake: Lack of follow-through and unwillingness to recognize the metastasizing Islamic threat was going to require more, not less, of an American presence.

Perhaps this was all too complicated for Republicans to explain. All of this doesn’t fit nicely the requirements of a made-for-talk-radio scandal. It does not put Clinton in the role of deliberately denying support for her personnel. But it is the truth, and Republicans should have stuck closer to it, making the big-picture case about the failure of the Obama administration to deal with a growing Islamic threat that manifested itself at a politically inconvenient time.