Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Benghazi, Rand Paul, and Dangerous Fixations

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Will Benghazi destroy Rand Paul?

That’s the case made by Zach Beauchamp today. His logic: Benghazimania involves arguing that President Barack Obama didn’t do enough to prevent the attacks or to react to them. This argument, however, forces Republicans to adopt a more interventionist direction, and move away from Paul's quasi-isolationist stance. In any case, by becoming the main Republican foreign policy issue, Benghazi fills the conservative debate space over foreign affairs and national security, leaving little energy for the fight Paul wants to have.

It’s a clever argument, but ultimately it falls short. Beauchamp correctly emphasizes the uphill battle Paul is fighting: Hawkish policies, or at least interventionist ones, are institutionalized within the Republican Party, and there are more party actors willing to fight to keep it that way than there are people who would change things.

What really makes Paul’s case impossible isn’t Benghazi, though: it’s Afghanistan. Or, rather, Afghanistan plus Ukraine plus Iraq plus Syria. Or, to put it another way, it’s Obama.

It was much easier for Paul to make a case against intervention that would resonate among Republican activists when the Democratic president was intervening. During Obama's “surge” in Afghanistan, and his expansion of drone attacks there and elsewhere, Republicans might have plausibly decided that the reason Obama’s foreign policy was a total failure was that he was doing too much. That’s far less likely when fewer troops are deployed and the number of U.S. casualties is diminishing.

In addition, fewer people are interested in foreign affairs and national security when Americans aren't being killed in combat.

Unless some new conflict breaks out that directly involves Americans, the 2016 election is going to be even less focused on foreign policy than were the last two cycles. The issues that could surface are more likely to be culture-war proxies, rather than actual discussions of foreign affairs and national security. And that’s really what's at stake with Benghazi, too. It isn't a debate about hawkish or dovish policy, or about whether and how the U.S. should be involved in Libya and other conflicts. It's much more about trying to paint the president and the secretary of state as traitors seeking to destroy the nation. It's hard to win a foreign policy argument when no one cares about it.

  1. It’s quite possible to argue that Obama’s failures have been a matter of too much intervention; Dan Larison does that here and here. It's harder is to argue that this constitutes the kind of abject, across-the-board failure that parties are drawn to and that the current Republican Party requires.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at