Shakespeare's Hamlet features a self-absorbed protagonist who confuses oratory for action and hesitates to shoulder his responsibility. Despite the obvious similarities to the protagonist of the Obama administration, the president and his campaign have engaged in a fresh, unexpected casting of the current performance: one in which the president is not Hamlet, but Ophelia. An administration that set a new and debased standard for politicizing national security is protesting against the politicizing of national security.
The White House is clearly feeling heat over their handling of the attack on our consulate in Libya. When challenged about it in the second debate, President Obama scolded Governor Romney that "you don't turn national security into a political issue." This was clearly a rehearsed rather than a spontaneous response, since Vice President Biden reiterated the charge yesterday, saying "it became so clear to the American people how Governor Romney and the campaign continue to try to politicize a tragedy." This would be the same Joe Biden that during his debate blamed both the intelligence community and the State Department of not doing their jobs in order to shield the White House from blame.
I share Peggy Noonan's view that the Romney campaign was too quick to criticize the administration when the attack in Libya occurred; it did feel like a moment for grieving the dead Americans, and it would have been graceful (and politically expedient, given the efforts to paint Romney as unfeeling) to have held off a day or two before prosecuting the administration's national security failings.
But the Romney campaign is not wrong to press the issue now. The White House made a choice to connect what occurred in Libya with protests elsewhere in the Middle East rather than connect it to increasing jihadist activity in Libya. The argument that al Qaeda is on the ropes and the tide of war is receding is much less persuasive when al Qaeda affiliates are attacking American consulates and killing American diplomats in friendly countries. Osama bin Laden being dead may turn out to be less significant than the White House has been claiming. The Obama administration persisted in attributing the attack in Benghazi to an anti-Muslim video long after evidence had called that explanation into doubt, which increases suspicion they made a politically expedient choice.
Moreover, this is the same administration that sent its national security advisor to Afghanistan to tell the commanders not to ask for more Marines. It is the same administration that set a politically-driven timeline for withdrawing surge forces from Afghanistan. It is the same administration that complained to journalists that the military was trying to "box the president in" during the Afghanistan review -- a very serious charge against the professionalism of our military. It is the same administration that excoriated its predecessor for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan while it declined to provide the military either the troops or the time they said would be needed to win the war. It is the same administration that claims this president is uniquely courageous to have approved the raid on Osama bin Laden. It is the same administration that leaked highly classified information to try and portray the president as a decisive commander in chief. It is the same administration that is using the Joint Chiefs of Staff as political pawns by insisting they want no more money or weapons -- and banking on their professionalism not to call their commander in chief a liar. It is the same administration that has threatened to veto any reduction in the sequestration defense cuts -- cuts that Secretary Panetta and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said will be devastating to our military power.
President Obama's sanctimonious protestations that his opponent is politicizing national security is a marvelous acting job -- that he can even get the words out with a straight face is a tribute to either thespian excellence or self-delusion. It's almost funny to watch the political actor that has done the most to politicize national security solemnly intoning against doing so. But Hamlet is a tragedy, not a comedy; and the president attempting to deflect criticism of his choices about the attacks in Libya by cloaking himself in righteousness is way beyond the pale.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.