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Republicans right to seek answers about Benghazi

Thomas F. Schaller

2:52 PM EST, November 27, 2012

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In general, presidents should appoint whomever they want to serve in their cabinets. But that doesn't mean that re-elected President Barack Obama will — or even should — appoint U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to replace the soon-departing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

It sounds cliché, but the only reason President Obama should choose Ambassador Rice is if he truly believes she's the best person to serve in that office. He shouldn't appoint her for the sake of setting up a showdown with his (and her) Republican critics in Congress, notably Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Nor should the president choose her over the other rumored finalist, Sen. John Kerry, merely to prevent recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown the opportunity to win, via special election, another Massachusetts Senate seat.

If Mr. Obama does nominate Ms. Rice, the confirmation process will be contentious and may get ugly. Senate confirmation hearings would provide conservatives spoiling for a post-2012 election fight the perfect opportunity to rough up the White House. Along with their allies, Senators McCain and Graham — both camera-loving, television talk show horses — will be all too tempted to turn the nomination hearings into a broader, nationally televised inquiry into what the president and his top advisers knew about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and when they knew it.

The president's harshest critics believe Mr. Obama, his re-election only weeks away, deliberately misled the country about security failures that allowed the Benghazi terrorists to plan the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, and then deployed Ms. Rice to television talk shows to reinforce a false cover story that the killings arose spontaneously from civilian protests against an American-made, anti-Muslim movie. Even if we take into account the political motives of those attacking Mr. Obama and trying to discredit his re-election and pump up right-wing media ratings, the president's critics are asking important questions about what the State Department and the White House did before, during and especially after the attacks.

Why weren't requests by U.S. officials in Benghazi for upgraded security in advance of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks honored? Even if that anniversary were not approaching, why weren't the movie protests sufficient to prompt heightened security? After the attacks, why did the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials, in statements to both congressional intelligence committees and the public, provide the false, protests-turned-violent account? Finally, after realizing its initial error, why didn't the administration provide a fuller, more accurate explanation?

As for Ambassador Rice, given that her current position provided her neither special access to information about Benghazi nor any unique responsibility to explain what happened there, why was she dispatched to the Sunday morning television shows to do precisely that?

As the president said in his post-election press conference, those critical of how the entire situation was handled — including selecting her to speak on behalf of the administration — should direct their aim and ire toward him, not Ms. Rice. Fine.

But Ms. Rice can and should explain, under oath, the circumstances of her summoning. Whether or not one believes top officials in the Obama administration and campaign conspired to create and then peddle an intentionally false cover-up story about the Benghazi attacks, the White House's response and Ms. Rice's misinformed (at best) or misleading (at worst) comments on the Sunday television networks are sufficient to warrant detailed, specific answers.

As for the conservative mob hoping to avenge yet another presidential election defeat, let's not forget: Many of the same voices calling for an immediate and thorough public inquiry into the Benghazi attacks defended President George W. Bush as he resisted for more than a year having a 9/11 Commission study the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed far more Americans and cost many more billions. Nor do I recall conservatives asking for the resignation of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who, within hours of the attacks and without any interest in finding out who perpetrated them, recommended bombing Iraq.

Still, Mr. Obama promised a better, more honest government than his predecessors delivered. Whether he nominates Susan Rice or not, the president must now deliver on that promise.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.