Shadow Government

Benghazi redux: When the facts are not with you, pound on the table

Wading through all of the Benghazi hearing revelations prompted me to review my own blog posts on the subject. If I caught them all, my progression runs something like this:

1. Initially, I was inclined to give Team Obama a passing grade for its tactical response, but to ding it for the larger strategic failure of understanding the roots of the problem in the Middle East. Also, I dinged Obama partisans for viewing the crisis narrowly through the lens of the electoral campaign and trying to shout down critics from Mitt Romney's camp rather than address the substance of their charges.

2. Next, I credited Team Obama with handling the ceremonial role well -- better than the Romney camp did -- but noted that new revelations pointed to problems with the Obama administration's preparation for and response to the crisis.

3. Next, I dinged the media for waiting so long before they started asking tough questions about Benghazi, but noted that once they started, Barack Obama's administration seemed unable to provide convincing answers. Nevertheless, I still defended the administration from Republicans who were pushing the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme. I said it was far more likely that rather than outright lying, what Team Obama was doing was mere partisan political spin control. It was all designed to distract public attention from an embarrassing fiasco, but to do so without willful deception.

4. Next, I pointed out that the Obama campaign in the televised foreign-policy debate tried to pretend that it had always been candid about the Benghazi terrorist attacks when, of course, it had not and had, in fact, followed exactly the spin script I had forecast.

5. Finally, I noted that the official State Department report tried to fix blame for Benghazi on Congress and despite presenting evidence for the myriad ways that Obama's regional strategy had itself contributed to disaster, studiously avoided reaching that obvious conclusion. The report read a bit like a whitewash designed to protect higher-ups.

Since then, the Benghazi revelations have suggested that I might have been too kind to the administration. There are four key questions, and on all of them, the evidence keeps piling up in a more negative direction:

1. Did failures of strategy and comprehension of the regional challenges contribute to the Benghazi disaster (in other words, was it just bad luck, or were there deeper failures involved)? From the beginning, this was a valid concern, and it is even more valid today. No new revelations have exonerated the administration on this crucial question.

2. Did failures of tactics and response contribute to the Benghazi disaster? Initially, it looked like those concerns were at best Monday morning quarterbacking and at worst partisan sniping, but the recent testimony shows that at least some responsible officials were begging for a better response in real time. The best that Obama defenders can say now is that even if these measures had been tried, they wouldn't have worked. Perhaps, but they were not even tried.

3. Was the initial public messaging up through Ambassador Susan Rice's infamous talking points tolerable spin and understandable fog-of-war confusion in the face of conflicting reports, or something much worse? Initially, I thought the administration earned the benefit of the doubt. Now, especially based on this bombshell story, the evidence points pretty convincingly to the conclusion that there was willful misleading going on in the earliest days.

4. Regardless of how it handled things under the pressure of a hard-fought reelection campaign, has the administration come clean since the election ended? Given how much of the recent testimony was missing in the State Department's official report, it is hard to credit the administration with candor even at this late date.

In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with a single element where the Obama case looks stronger today than it did before.

For months, my friends in the Romney campaign thought that Benghazi was a genuine scandal, and my friends on Team Obama have insisted that there is nothing to it (though one friend did concede that there was probably more to Benghazi than there ever was to the faux scandal over Valerie Plame). Throughout I have argued a middle-ground position of faint praise and faint damns. However, the evidence keeps mounting that the Romney folks may have been closer to the truth all along.

Here is one more piece of evidence: Obama defenders seem to have stopped trying to argue substance and instead are emphasizing how little the public cares about it and how quickly it will all be forgotten by the time that Hillary Clinton runs for president. They may be right about both of those points, but that is tantamount to pleading nolo contendere on the key charges. If the facts were with them, I think they would be mounting a more substantive defense.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A Pakistani election primer

In Pakistan's 66-year history, a civilian government has never completed a full term of office and then handed power through elections to a successor administration. That will change on Saturday when Pakistanis go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Given Pakistan's position as ground zero for violent Islamic extremism, the world has a vital stake in who wins these elections and how they proceed to govern. What should we expect?

Several pre-election trends will have a decisive influence on its outcome. On the positive side of the ledger, this will be a competitive race. Forty-seven parties are contesting it. Forty-eight percent of registered voters are under age 35, and there are 36 million new voters, bringing to bear a sizable youth constituency that has a compelling interest in job creation and economic reform. There are 161 female candidates for office, compared with only 64 in Pakistan's last national elections in 2008. The Pakistani military, which has traditionally played a kingmaker role in politics when not governing itself, does not have a horse in this race, preferring to remain on the sidelines. These are all positive dynamics.

The top downside risk is the extraordinary levels of targeted violence that have preceded voting day, tilting the playing field and dousing it in blood. More than 100 political candidates and their supporters have been murdered by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) over the past 1.5 months. Insidiously, the TTP seems not to want to disrupt the election overall, but is pursuing a targeted campaign to suppress turnout for the parties most determined to combat violent extremism: the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Pakistan's election is in fact taking place amid a low-grade civil war in which domestic terrorists are successfully targeting the political parties with the most liberal vision for the country's future. These parties are effectively unable to campaign, with the result that turnout of their supporters will be dramatically suppressed.

Equally disturbing is that several political parties expected to do best in Saturday's contest appear to have made a separate peace with the Pakistani Taliban that has largely precluded terrorist attacks on their members. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, led by Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by Imran Khan, have been able to campaign free from violent attack, giving them extra momentum in the lead-up to the polling. Sharif has offered to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban and withdraw the Pakistani armed forces from the fight against the militants in the country's northwest. Khan has offered dialogue with the terrorists and has pledged to order the military to shoot down American drones operating over extremist safe havens.

The PML-N and PTI lead the polls, with parties under siege from terrorism trailing in their wake. Should Sharif or Khan form a government separately or in coalition, Americans should expect a change in Pakistan's cooperation against violent extremists -- if either leader can wrest control of foreign policy and security policy from the armed forces, something the PPP-led government of the past five years could not manage.

In fact, the surge in popular support for the PML-N and the PTI comes not from their flirtations with radical Islamists or their anti-American posture. It stems from the promise of both parties to reverse the tide of corruption, cronyism, and economic lethargy that has characterized Pakistan under PPP rule. Polls show the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support the Talibanization of their country -- which is why the TTP is violently contesting the election rather than competing in it, and why Islamist political parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Jamaat-e-Islami have done so poorly in previous elections and will surprise on the downside in these elections.

Most Pakistanis want better governance and economic opportunity -- not new safe havens for terrorists or war against the United States. But the more space the country's new leaders give to the violent radicals who seek to overthrow the Pakistani state, the less chance those leaders will have of generating the public goods their voters demand. A successful civilian transition is a historic first worth celebrating as better than the alternatives. But by playing footsie with the terrorists who are tearing their country apart, the likely victors of Saturday's election do a disservice to the vibrant civil society and patriotic armed forces that hold Pakistan together against increasingly long odds. 

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images