Rice on Libya: Obfuscating From Behind
by CLAUDIA ROSETT
September 22, 2012
With an American ambassador murdered abroad for the first time since 1979, it was clear that someone from the Obama administration had to show up on the Sunday TV talk shows to field questions about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But of all the many officials to whom the White House might have assigned the job, why on earth did that special someone turn out to be Ambassador Susan Rice?
Rice is the U.S. envoy to the United Nations in New York, not to anyplace in North Africa or the Middle East. Although President Obama has given Rice the rank of cabinet member, she has no direct responsibility for diplomatic posts in Libya, or State Department security abroad, or investigations into terrorism. America's murdered ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, reported to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to Rice. Yet, on Sunday, it was Susan Rice who emerged as the administration's ubiquitous expert on the Sept. 11 terrorist assault in Benghazi. With dizzying omnipresence, she turned up on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN (maybe there were a few more that I've missed, but you get the idea).
Not that Rice called it a terrorist assault. Her omnipresent talking point was that the assault in Benghazi was "spontaneous," that according to "our current best assessment" it materialized as an ad hoc copycat version of the embassy storming earlier that day in Cairo, all in reaction to the "hateful video." As she told it to NBC, the armed assault that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans was simply what happened, spontaneously, when the spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi got hijacked by "a small handful of heavily armed mobsters." Or, as she explained it to CBS, ad hoc events spontaneously turned deadly when "extremist elements" took advantage of the heavy weapons that are "unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution."
OK, this is clearly the official administration line, in which the blanket description "spontaneous" - akin, almost, to some sort of natural disaster? - becomes the catch-all for deflecting responsibility for any failures of administration policy or practice. The president of Libya, Mohamed Al-Magarief, may disagree, as he has - calling the attack "preplanned" and saying "I think this was al Qaeda" - but for official U.S. purposes it is now Rice's vague summation of "spontaneity" that has been thrown like a veil over the horror in Benghazi. Who were the "mobsters"? Do they habitually carry around rocket-propelled grenades in case they run across a spontaneous demonstration? For now, and quite likely for some time to come, U.S. officials can deflect questions about the specifics, on grounds that there's an FBI investigation going on.
There's also wiggle room in Rice's rote qualifier that her remarks are based on "the information that we have at present." Should facts emerge to substantiate the more credible theory that it took planning to show up on Sept. 11 with heavy weapons, target the consulate while the ambassador was visiting, and then locate and attack the separate safe house, there's no need for the administration to admit to denying, dismissing or trying to spin into oblivion the obvious. Any unavoidably embarrassing details can be consigned to an update. As an exercise in managing what is known these days as "the narrative," this is pretty adept.
But why choose Susan Rice to deliver this message? Surely there are plenty of administration officials more directly involved with Libya these days?
My guess is that Ambassador Rice herself is part of the message. She represents America at the UN. And the UN is where the Obama administration goes to unburden itself of responsibility for tough choices in world affairs. It's a place where success leaves room for individual bragging rights, but failure can be blamed on others, on the collective - on everyone, and no one. The UN is where Obama, after some dithering, chose to lead from behind to remove Gaddafi. When he fell, Obama was glad to take credit for success, saying "The United States is proud of the the role we played in supporting the Libyan revolution and protecting the Libyan people." But now what?
Certainly Gaddafi was a monstrous tyrant, whose departure was decades overdue. But there was always the tough question of what might follow Gaddafi, and who would take the lead in dealing with anything that might go badly wrong. That was an issue well below the U.S. election radar until this past week. Suddenly, Libya is all over the headlines, looking like a fiasco, with photos of the murdered ambassador and gutted consulate in Benghazi. Time to start deflecting responsibility away from Washington and toward the collective. That, I would wager, is why Ambassador Rice, our envoy to the UN, was dispatched by the administration to be the Sunday TV expert on the Sept. 11 attack in Libya.
Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.