Hillary Clinton's Game of Patience on Benghazi

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By Tobin Harshaw

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's swan song before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning had the feeling of a gold-watch-and-sponge-cake retirement party rather than an inquiry into a major foreign-policy debacle.

The Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the special mission in Benghazi, Libya -- the ostensible subject of the hearing -- was swamped by encomiums to Clinton's tenure. In a remarkably rambling performance, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California more or less kicked off the Hillary 2016 presidential campaign -- "You will be sorely missed, but I, for one, hope not for too long" -- before asking a quick-let's-change-the-subject question about Mali.

There was one moment of tension, however, when Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin grilled Clinton over the Barack Obama administration's incorrect insistence for more than a week after the attack that the cause had been an offensive American-made movie about Islam. After explaining that it was a hectic period and that the government relied on the "most acceptable" talking points, Clinton snapped: "What difference at this point does it make?"

That was perhaps the best, and certainly the most honest, response the administration has offered in the four months since the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the mission. After all, in the midst of what seemed like a tight president race against Mitt Romney, the last thing Obama needed (and exactly what Republicans craved) was evidence that his administration had been unprepared for an attack on an American diplomatic site on the anniversary of the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks. But with Obama having retaken the oath of office this week, few present this morning had much stomach to go into detail on the timelines and Sunday-talk show appearances that seemed so important last fall.

Clinton was slightly less honest, however, under questioning from another Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona. The smartest course, she said, might have been to withhold an explanation, to "don't say what we don't know." Unfortunately, she added, that is "not part of what we are as Americans."

While it's true that Americans may not be the most patient people on earth, they would in general prefer no information to misinformation. It's understandable that the administration didn't want to admit it was clueless about the causes of the attack in the homestretch of the presidential campaign, but it can't blame its peddling a weak story on some alleged cultural need for immediate gratification. It’s a lesson Clinton should take to heart if indeed she is looking ahead to 2016.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and education for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

-0- Jan/23/2013 16:46 GMT