DAVID ROHDEUnprecedented Justice Department searches of journalists’ phone records. IRS targeting of conservative political groups. Spiraling sexual assault rates in the military. And the downplaying of the first killing of an American ambassador in 30 years.
In a matter of days, alarming accounts have emerged regarding the actions of five key federal government bureaucracies: the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.
For commentators on the right, the reports are final proof of the raft of conspiracy theories focused on President Barack Obama. For commentators on left, they are non-scandals that Republicans exaggerate for political gain. Our endless left-right debate – Obama the devil, Obama the angel – misses more serious problems.
First, Obama’s woes. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. For five years the Obama administration has displayed a destructive tendency to try to have it both ways. In a press conference Thursday, the president did so again.
In lawyerly responses, Obama said he supported journalists’ constitutional right to report but stood by the fact that his administration has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all previous administrations combined. He called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but prevaricated on how the United States would respond to apparent Syrian government chemical weapons attacks.
Obama came into office promising openness but from counter-terrorism to domestic policy, his White House has been secretive, insular and controlling. Yes, Republicans are bent on destroying Obama’s presidency, but an aloof president has alienated his Democratic allies.
Congress is no better. Each two-year term seems to set new standards for political trench warfare. One-third of the committees in the Republican-controlled House are investigating the administration.
The IRS actions – from targeting conservative tax-exempt organization to lying to members of Congress – were outrageous. But so far, no evidence has emerged that the White House knew of the effort. And responsibility for the soaring number of sexual assaults in the military lies primarily with the Pentagon, not the White House.
But both scandals show a larger problem: Legislative deadlock makes governance more difficult. Ambiguous regulations have complicated the IRS’s job of screening political groups. And there is limited agreement in Congress on how to reform the military’s antiquated system for prosecuting sexual assault.
Regarding Benghazi, there are some criticisms that can and should be made of the administration. Locked in a fiercely contested re-election campaign, Obama downplayed the role of al-Qaeda in the attack in his initial public statements.
But Republicans exaggerate the impact of the careful terminology Obama used. At most, the effort succeeded for several weeks. By Election Day, the fact that al-Qaeda-linked terrorists had killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was well known.
Far-right claims that Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally blocked aid to Benghazi before or during the attack are baseless and absurd. Neither would want an American ambassador killed in the middle of a presidential campaign.
Instead, blame for Benghazi lies across the government.
House Republicans’ rejection of $450 million in State Department requests for additional security funding since 2010 intensified the department’s dependence on private contractors to guard its facilities. When the Libyan government banned such firms, the department’s understaffed Diplomatic Security Service had only a handful of personnel to deploy in Libya. Charlene Lamb and three other State Department officials were relieved of their duties after rejecting repeated requests for additional security from American officials in Libya.
In the weeks ahead, perceptions of Obama will likely harden. The right will see him as dastardly. The left will view him as a victim of Washington’s gutter politics. Most probably, his biggest sin is being aloof and disengaged.
But Obama’s failings are only part of the problem. An increasingly polarized Washington is devouring its own. Ceaseless, take-no-prisoners political warfare, not nefarious White House plots, ravages government.
*This abridged article is taken from Reuters