Foreign service in hot spots like the Middle East is inherently dangerous, as Americans were reminded by the attacks of September 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, on the American consulate. Four Americans died, including U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and it is the responsibility of Congress to determine what happened and what can be learned to better protect consulates and embassies in troubled regions. However, playing political football with a tragedy, as is the case today, is unconscionable and should be unthinkable. Once upon a time it was both.
In April 1983, militants bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. As horrific as this event was, it paled in comparison to what happened six months later, also in Beirut, when a suicide bomber drove a truck carrying the equivalent of roughly 20,000 pounds of TNT into a U.S. Marine compound and detonated it, killing 254 Marines. In another five months, the nightmarish Beirut trifecta was completed when militants captured, tortured and killed the CIA station chief.
The parallels between these events and the attack on Benghazi are obvious, although the loss of life three decades ago was far more substantial. The parallels end when it comes to the reaction of Congress in 1983 and 1984, when true statesmen like House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O’Neill, of Massachusetts, led investigations designed to find answers, not reap political benefits. Compare that to the political show hearings conducted by Republicans with an eye toward November’s elections and the presidential race of 2016. Consider the absence then of the wild conspiracy theories and groundless attacks on the U.S. president that poison the debate not only about Benghazi but nearly every other issue, domestic and foreign.
The U.S. president in 1983 and 1984 was Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon seen as above criticism by admirers, then and now. Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan agreed on little politically, but they liked one another personally, and the speaker respected the president and the office of the presidency enough to find ways to compromise and more America forward. Compare and contrast with current Speaker John Boehner, whose spiteful obstructionism, dislike of President Obama and disrespect for the office of the president have helped stall America in its tracks since the GOP took over the House.
Investigators found in 1983 that a vehicle gate was left open in the Marines’ military compound and sentries’ weapons were not loaded. This was naive at best, derelict at worse, but the bipartisan exploration of the Beirut events produced sober recommendations to be followed in the future to avoid a similar tragedy. There were no calls for impeachment, no subpoenas of members of the Reagan administration, no star chamber proceedings conducted by Democrats in front of the television cameras to gain political points.
It’s a long way from Tip O’Neill to Representative Darrell Issa, who has used his perch as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to scandal-monger Benghazi in a bid to undermine President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who may seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. More than a dozen hearings and thousands of pages of documents later, Mr. Issa and company have uncovered no scandals and nothing more enlightening than the frank State Department report citing a lack of security and communication breakdowns.
The Benghazi hysterics, however, aren’t in the market for policy failures that can be learned from, they are interested only in Obama- and Clinton-bashing. If Democratic critics of President Reagan in 1983 had questioned his patriotism and accused him of engaging in cover-ups, as have the critics of Mr. Obama, they would have been branded as traitors by Republican loyalists.
That didn’t happen then, but it is happening now, when there is no shame attached to playing politics with tragedy.