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“The buck stops here.” – Harry Truman
It’s thoughtful of Hillary Clinton to fall on her sword for President Obama over the Libyan debacle – and there may even be some legitimacy to it – but as his predecessor from Independence, Mo., famously observed, accountability rests in the Oval Office. Obama can no more evade responsibility for last month’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya than former President George W. Bush could for not heeding warnings of the 9/11 terror attacks in this country.
But for Obama, as for Bush, that may be both the bad news and the good news. Americans seem to understand that it is impossible to prevent every attack, every time. Even though the Bush administration had ample warning of Osama bin Laden’s intention to attack the United States, Americans blamed bin Laden, not Bush.
That doesn’t mean it’s a free ride for presidents on whose watch American lives are lost, but it does mean that Americans are willing to look at the facts and come to reasonable conclusions about the degree of liability a president carries.
The question for Obama is what his role was in the insufficient level of security at the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered in an attack by terrorists. Clinton, following up on Vice President Biden’s statement during Thursday’s debate, said the responsibility was hers and that the White House hadn’t been made aware of requests for increased security before the attack.
It’s hard to know if that is true, but it is certainly not implausible. Just as word about bin Laden’s intentions may not have risen to Bush’s office, it is entirely possible that this request never landed on Obama’s desk. But Obama is the president and, 67 years later, that is still where the buck stops.
It is predictable and not unreasonable for Republican nominee Mitt Romney to make an issue of the level of security at the diplomatic post. But he and his supporters are also walking a thin line, because Republicans – including Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan – have voted to cut security funding in the budget. One Republican practically bragged about it.
Asked on CNN if he had voted to reduce security funding, this is what Rep. Jason Chaffetz said: “Absolutely. Look, we have to make priorities and choices in this country. We have … 15,000 contractors in Iraq. We have more than 6,000 contractors, a private army there, for President Obama, in Baghdad. And we’re talking about can we get two dozen or so people into Libya to help protect our forces. When you’re in tough economic times, you have to make difficult choices. You have to prioritize things.”
Thus, for the fiscal year 2011, the House cut $128 million from the administration’s request for embassy security funding, and even more the next year and it is looking to make further reductions for 2013.
That doesn’t absolve Obama or his administration, of course, but it does make clear that, just as lack of action or the failure to communicate can have dire consequences, so can spending decisions. There are more than two dirty hands in this sad episode.