How to argue with your family about: Benghazi

By: Zack Beauchamp

On September 11, 2012, an armed mob attacked a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The attack has been the subject of bitter partisan fighting in the US ever since, and a frequent point of Republican criticism against Hillary Clinton. If you've got Clinton supporters or Republicans at your dinner — or, especially, both — there's a good chance it'll come up.

Your niece says:

"Obama and Hillary Clinton's incompetence got four Americans killed. They have blood on their hands."

Your best bet is to let the moment pass. But if you somehow get sucked into responding, you can cite the eight independent investigations into the attack, none of which has uncovered evidence that senior Obama administration officials are culpable.

If she says Obama knew in advance that an attack on the diplomatic mission was coming and did nothing to stop it, point her to the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report. It found — and here you can instantly become the most unpopular person at Thanksgiving by quoting a congressional report verbatim — that "there was no singular tactical warning in the intelligence reporting leading up to the events on September 11, 2012, predicting an attack on US facilities in Benghazi on the 9/11 anniversary."

Your niece might also mention a "stand down" order — the idea that there were US forces nearby in Libya's capital, Tripoli, that could have stopped the attack, but that someone in the White House ordered them to back off.

If that happens, you can climb out the window to escape. If there's no window nearby, point to a report issued by the Republican majority in the House Armed Services Committee. The report found that "there was no ‘stand down’ order." It says there was nothing the US could have done to interrupt the attack: "Majority members have not yet discerned any response alternatives that could have likely changed the outcome of the Benghazi attack."

Finally, your niece may bring up "the talking points." Those are CIA-edited notes summarizing the agency's findings, given to then-US Ambassador Susan Rice on the Sunday after the attack; allegedly, the White House tampered with them to hide evidence that the attack was a premeditated and preventable terrorist attack. But the Senate Intelligence Committee report published all the drafts of Rice's talking points; if you read them, you'll see that no one at the White House changed the drafts to hide evidence from the public.

Your sister-in-law says:

"There's nothing anyone could have done to stop the Benghazi attack, and I can't believe we're still talking about it."

Your Clinton-supporter-in-law is getting ahead of herself. Tell her that very real US government failures allowed the attack to happen and that they shouldn't be swept under the rug because it's convenient for Democrats.

After the attack, the State Department convened an internal investigation, called the Accountability Review Board, to identify what went wrong with security. Its final report faulted "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" for the inadequate security at the mission. It found that basically no one was in charge of the Benghazi mission's security due to bureaucratic failures. That left it vulnerable to attack in a chaotic city teeming with militants.

The bipartisan Senate Intelligence report found that if the US had beefed up the mission's security before sending Stevens there, the attack probably could have been stopped.

"The attacks were preventable, based on extensive intelligence reporting on the terrorist activity in Libya — to include prior threats and attacks against Western targets — and given the known security shortfalls at the US mission," it concludes.

Now, it's not like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was personally responsible for managing diplomatic security at one compound in eastern Libya. But the failures happened under their watch and speak to a bigger issue that deserves serious discussion: how the US should protect diplomats doing important work in dangerous places.

Your uncle says:

"This Benghazi thing is pure cynical politics. Republicans are just trying to destroy Clinton's campaign."

Your uncle's got a point, but you can distract from the inevitable argument between him and someone more conservative at the table by pointing out that Republican incentives here aren't always what they seem.

Yes, some Republicans are cynically manipulating this issue for their own gain or to hurt Clinton — but some do genuinely believe the White House did something right, and some are just kind of trapped by the internal GOP politics of it all.

Start with what your uncle gets right. It's true that the Benghazi committee successfully damaged Hillary Clinton by uncovering her private email scandal — and Republicans want to keep hurting her like that. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted as much in a now-infamous September 29 Fox News appearance:

Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.

But some Republicans might also be driven, at least in part, by internal party politics that incentivize endless Benghazi-mania. Republicans who press the issue, and especially who target Clinton, get a boost with national conservative media, the GOP base, and potential donors. It's a way to build a national profile and thus gain influence within the party. So if you're a Republican skeptical that this focus is really good for your party — it plays well with the base, but less so outside of it — then ignoring Benghazi means you miss out on party advancement and campaign donations.

Assuming anyone is still at this nightmare of a dinner table to listen, your uncle may bring up all those investigations showing no high-level administration culpability for Benghazi, so as to argue that surely Republican hammering on the issue can only be cynical.

But you can respond that conservative preoccupation with Benghazi makes a lot more sense when you see that it's not just about Benghazi but rather about a larger (and more grounded) suspicion that the Obama White House is full of dishonest political operatives who are also incompetent when it comes to fighting terrorism.

In that view, arguing about Benghazi is less about the specific security protocols of a remote diplomatic outpost in North Africa and more about asserting fears that the current president and possibly the next Democratic presidential nominee can't be trusted to keep Americans safe from terrorism. Pointing that out isn't going to make this disastrous dinner table conversation any more pleasant, but at least it will help bring out what this Benghazi argument is, on some levels, really about.