Power Play

How Bad Was Benghazi Botch?

"Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None."

-- President Obama on Sept. 12, 2012 discussing the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, then said by the administration to have been spurred by an Internet video deemed offensive to Islam.

Elections are clarifying things, though not necessarily for voters.

Americans are still puzzling over the significance and consequences of 2012's electoral embrace of an unpopular status quo. Is dysfunction the new normal? Is sclerotic malaise the best we can muster for a federal government?

But for the candidates and campaign teams in the midst of elections, they are marvelously simplifying affairs. If you don't win, nothing else matters. Other considerations must take a back seat, even if you are the incumbent president of the most important nation on the planet.

If one believes he or she is in politics to do good, as almost all politicians do, ignoble attainment of a victory is easily excused by the thought of good deeds achieved once installed or retained in office.

Today's birthday boy, Nicolo Machiavelli, wrote that if a politician is successful, "the means will always be considered honest." Or, as his modern intellectual heir, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, put it: "Just win, baby."

But it is not always so.

In the height of the 2012 election cycle, Islamist militants laid siege to and overran a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. This posed huge dangers to President Obama's re-election effort.

Obama's greatest political asset was his success in preventing a large-scale attack on the U.S. by Islamists. Obama had authorized the raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Usama bin Laden and shown a willingness to kill other terrorists with the kind of enthusiasm not associated with a man who campaigned in opposition to the Iraq war.

If there were any thought that Obama were not sound on national security, his re-election, then looking likely, would be in big trouble. It was especially troublesome that the attack occurred in a country that was the centerpiece of Obama's Middle East policy, where he had helped depose a secular government and install an Islamist one in its place.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney tried to jump on the topic and managed to be overeager and equivocating all at once. Romney ended up discussing the contents of Twitter messages surrounding the attack and defending himself against charges of politicizing the deaths of Americans.

While Democratic operatives had Team Romney pinned down on his Tweet talk, Obama and his advisers formulated a response. Power Play was in Chicago the day after the attack for meetings with the Obama campaign, but word came mid-morning that no visit would occur in light of the Benghazi raid.

What resulted was a nuanced and careful response from Obama and his diplomatic and national security team. Obama deplored terror, but made clear that the attack was the result of a cheesy video about the founder of Islam, Mohammed. "Spontaneous" was the word of the week.

As Romney tried to find his feet on the subject, Republicans began to accuse Obama of laxity. How could the U.S. not be prepared for an attack on the anniversary of 9/11? How could the consulate in a city known to be a home to Islamist radicals be so poorly guarded? What was the ambassador doing there with such a light security detail?

When reporters made similar, reasonable inquiries, Obama's campaign and administration dismissed such questions as biased, saying the few members of the press who pressed the subject were just doing Romney's handiwork.

This allowed Obama to hold the line and prevent greater anxiety or anger in the electorate. The attack was spontaneous and partly the fault of American religious radicals, so please stop politicizing this tragedy.

But then it was revealed that there was no riot, spontaneous or otherwise. It had been a planned, coordinated raid. Further, there had been growing warnings from the diplomatic team in Libya that trouble was brewing. And while Obama claimed that Al Qaeda was in tatters, the group seemed to still be able to strike back.

Obama cautioned against rushing to judgment and said that he and his team's mistakes were no cover up but rather the result of the fog of war, or something like it. An inquest would be conducted. The bottom of this would be gotten to.

The slow walk was on.

Romney subsequently shied from the subject. The one time he made mention of the attack in a debate with Obama, the president caught him on a technicality and moderator Candy Crowley of CNN helped to humiliate the former Massachusetts governor.

The press, mostly either cowed or uninterested on the subject, let the issue drop too. Obama's strategy was successful. Political disaster was averted. Cue the confetti.

But having been re-elected, the election strategy re: Benghazi is causing something of a hangover for the president.

Now that we have had the first large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, public anxiety about Islamists and terrorism is way up. With that backdrop, Republicans are re-opening the inquest into the Benghazi attacks. This time the questions aren't so much about non-existent riots or why Americans in an Islamist country weren't on higher alert.

This time it's about allegations of a cover-up. Did Obama officials muzzle critics in service of the president's re-election goal? Was the inquest full and fair? What did the president know, and when did he know it?

Given it all to do over again, Obama likely would repeat his pre-election approach to Benghazi: denounce critics, go slow and minimize any broader significance of the attack. After all, he did win a second term.

But that does not mean he will not pay a price for it. 

And Now, A Word From Charles 

"If it turns out there are people who were material witnesses [concerning the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya] who could have known stuff who were turned away -- rather than perhaps ignored or negligence involved -- but if there was active turning away as a way to protect the administration, then you have a scandal on your hands." 

-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier." 

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at  http:live.foxnews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.