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posted: 5/14/2014 5:01 AM

Hung up on Benghazi

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Tuning the car radio some weeks back, I heard the president denounced as a moron. I was shocked. I had reached some right-wing talker and he was carrying on about something Barack Obama had recently said -- that he worries more about a nuclear attack on New York than he does about Russia. The radio guy declared that the president had given terrorists an idea. He apparently forgot that the notion of attacking New York had already occurred to them.

I live in a media bubble, I suppose, and this might account for my otherwise inexplicable innocence. But this is the way the president's opponents talk. It is rude. It is crude. It is disrespectful and it is downright nuts -- but it is not limited to radio talkers. It is the lingua franca of the Republican Party.

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I feel about the GOP as I do about the religion of others: I don't get it. I know feelings can be strong and reason plays little part in it -- faith is faith, after all -- and this is the way I see the GOP snits about the IRS and, more pertinently, Benghazi. What are these people talking about?

Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, died in the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya -- two from mortar fire, and Stevens and another man from smoke inhalation. These deaths are a serious matter for which bureaucratic blame has already been assessed. No one can possibly think the Obama administration knew the attack was coming and let it happen. There is no proof of that. Similarly, no one can still think the White House put the brakes on a rescue attempt by the U.S. military. Again, there is no proof of that.

So what is Benghazi? Beats me, I am tempted to say. But I recognize it as a transparent Republican attempt to provide the party's base with grist for its fantasy mill. Is it possible the Obama administration fudged the nature of the attack, refusing to apply the term "terrorist"? Yes, of course. Did the White House spinmeisters put their hands all over it? Could be. But is any of this so momentous that it has required 13 public hearings and now a select House committee that will delve and delve feverishly ... for what?

I am not sure if this rancorous partisanship is something new in American history or just the same old, same old. But I know that what I am seeing looks both petty and mean. House Speaker John Boehner talks about Benghazi with synthetic solemnity. Fox News dissects it, parsing White House talking points with the ferocious intensity of a hunting dog pointing at some prey. Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.

Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state both when the Benghazi attack occurred and earlier when a request for additional security got rejected at a level way below hers. (The ambassador seemed to agree.) She may well be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, and so it's possible the GOP is attempting to soften her up. The attempt may bear fruit. She can be provoked. At a Senate hearing into Benghazi, an annoyed Clinton said: "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they'd they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and ... prevent it from ever happening again, senator." She seemed, understandably, exasperated.

I am hardly uncritical of the president. I have my differences with him, particularly in foreign policy. (I wish he had one.) But I take no succor in the venomous criticism that comes at him from the right and dominates the Republican-controlled House. The pushback that any president needs to sharpen his thinking and hone his programs is trivialized by a GOP opposition that is all too easy to dismiss.

The president was wrong and weak on Syria. The president got off on the wrong foot with Israel. And the president has been slow to recognize that what is done in one sphere, the Middle East, for instance, affects another, such as the looming threat of an expansionist China. These are issues Congress could and should look at. Instead, it has attempted to make a scandal out of Benghazi. So far, it has merely produced a farce.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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