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What We Learned From the Benghazi Investigation

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.
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The longest-ever congressional investigation into executive-branch malfeasance is finally over, and -- surprise! -- there’s still nothing new in the basic story of how the Obama administration botched Benghazi.

In other words, it’s still the case that the attacks that killed four Americans there constituted a policy disaster -- something everyone has agreed on for nearly four years. It’s also still the case that the entire Libya policy pursued by the administration has turned out badly, although it’s more debatable whether alternative actions (or inactions) would have turned out any better.

And beyond that? Not much, really.

The big achievement of the committee was the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal, which is unlikely to affect the 2016 election or improve government operations in the future. It did update the general belief among Republicans (and other Clinton-bashers) that the former secretary of state will be indicted any day now, an article of faith which has survived some 8,000 days since Bill Clinton was sworn into office in 1993.

And we did find out some stuff about friend-of-the-Clintons Sidney Blumenthal, but that still seems designed more to fill time in conservative media than to make a case against Hillary Clinton for president. No one ever really thought this House special investigative committee was anything more than opposition research for the 2016 election -- the surprise was how little they even did that.

We also found out that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and all politicians everywhere try to present the best possible version of events to the public. I don’t like criticizing the cost of congressional investigations -- it’s good for the House and Senate to spend money on executive-branch oversight -- but determining once and for all that politicians spin likely isn’t the best use of resources.

Mostly, what the repeated investigations into Benghazi prove (again) are the dangers of getting caught in a closed information loop. For years, Republicans have been fixated on a theory that never made any sense in the first place -- that the Obama administration and the 2012 Obama re-election campaign believed news of a planned attack in Benghazi would have been politically toxic, while somehow the same deaths as a result of a spontaneous local uprising would have been no big deal. Those fully trapped inside the information loop even came to believe that Obama actively chose not to rescue the Americans in Benghazi, because it would be politically disadvantageous for him to do so.

Supposedly, the fact that there was still organized terrorism would undermine Obama’s case that he had been successful in fighting al-Qaeda. But outside of the Republican bubble, Obama had never claimed he fully defeated terrorism, and certainly had never claimed that he had eliminated organized terrorism but that spontaneous attacks were no big deal. And in fact, there was no massive outcry from the electorate once it became clear that the Benghazi attacks had been planned.

Again: Just because the conspiracy theories about Benghazi were bonkers doesn’t change the fact that the attacks were a policy failure, and that the best thing anyone can say about the Obama (and Clinton) policy in Libya is that the other options might have been worse.

We’re still waiting for serious congressional oversight of Obama’s foreign policy. I’m not holding my breath for it to start anytime soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net