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Beating the dead horse called Benghazi [Commentary]

After endlessly trying to repeal and replace "Obamacare," the GOP has come up empty-handed. The health-care law appears to be gaining more public acceptance. So congressional Republicans are doing what they can to revive another old hobby horse — Benghazi.

The name of the Libyan city where an American ambassador and three consulate officials were killed in a terrorist raid on Sept. 11, 2012 has become shorthand for what Republicans argue is a continuing political cover-up by the Obama administration. They charge that it continues to hide its incompetence in responding to the attack and attempted deception in the aftermath.

The allegation was first raised — and has been determinedly maintained — by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and by Rep. Darrell Issa, the latter heading a House investigating committee into the matter. Now House Speaker John Boehner has called for a separate select House committee, a proposal that has only generated more partisan haggling.

Some Democratic congressional leaders are threatening to boycott the proposed committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has asked for equal party representation on it, but with Mr. Boehner holding the House majority, why would he want to grant that?

The impetus for the latest GOP plan for another Benghazi inquiry was the recent release of a White House email written by Obama Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes to then-UN ambassador Susan Rice, now the national security adviser. Not included in an original batch of White House documents sent to Congress, the email was obtained by the conservative Judicial Watch organization in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The dispute grew out of Ms. Rice's first televised remarks after the attack, in which she stated that the attack appeared to be triggered by a video disparaging the Muslim prophet Muhammad rather than a planned terrorist operation.

Mr. Rhodes' email to Ms. Rice indicated a goal "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video and not a broader failure of policy." It added that "since we began to see protests in response to this Internet video, the president directed the administration to take a number of steps. His top priority has been the safety and security of all Americans serving abroad."

"Benghazi" quickly became the code word for Republican allegations of inadequate security at the U.S. consulate there. The charge was used against President Obama in his 2012 campaign for re-election, and now is being repeated indirectly against then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an anticipated presidential candidate in 2016.

When the Rhodes email became public, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said it had not been released with the earlier requested documents because it was "explicitly not about Benghazi but about the general dynamic in the Arab — or in the Muslim world at the time." Questions from White House reporters reflected much skepticism.

While many politicians, and arguably most of the country, have moved on to other more immediate problems and crises such as a still sluggish domestic economy and a potential new war in Ukraine, crying "Benghazi" seems only the latest case of beating a dead political horse.

Ever since Republicans wailed over "who lost China" and "who lost Vietnam" in the last century, the tactic of flogging political cadavers has been a staple of both parties.

During his communist-hunting heyday in the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy raised hue and cry over the commission of an obscure, suspected Army dentist, Irving Peress, demanding to know "Who promoted Peress?" The country was ludicrously whipped into a frenzy clamor by that particular search for a scapegoat during that infamous red scare.

Playing the "Benghazi card" may well produce the same result by the time the next presidential campaign rolls around, even if Hillary Clinton is actively seeking the Democratic nomination by then or has it locked up, as many in her party seem to believe will happen.

As for playing the same card against Mr. Obama to frustrate him for the rest of his second term, there are plenty of other political targets available at home and abroad to keep him on the defensive, as his stalled standing in the polls continues to attest.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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