The flurry of rumour-mongering and partisan finger-pointing, that instantly flared up last week as news of CIA Director David Petraeus’ resignation spread, was something to behold. As most readers are surely aware by now, the former general was forced into retirement by news of an extramarital affair with his biographer.
How people reacted to this served as a telling reminder that a post-election America is hardly a post-partisan America.
As word of Petraeus’ downfall spread last Friday, Republicans, still bruised after last Tuesday’s loss by Mitt Romney, were quick to link the resignation to September’s attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
One hesitates to prejudge scandals that are still unfolding or overseas tragedies that are still being investigated, but it is also worth remembering that real life is rarely plotted as oddly and intricately as a Hollywood thriller.
Within minutes of the announcement that Petraeus was stepping down, the right-wing media universe fastened on the fact that he was scheduled to testify on the subject of Benghazi before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. The conspiracy-minded see his resignation as an attempt to silence him, ignoring the fact, first, that the hearing will go ahead as planned (Petraeus’ deputy, now the agency’s Acting Director, will testify in his place) and, second, that if the committee really wants to hear from Petraeus, it can use a subpoena to compel his testimony about Benghazi, or anything else, regardless of whether he still heads the CIA or not.
I’ve even read suggestions from people who ought to know better that Paula Broadwell, the woman with whom Petraeus had an affair, was the central player in an elaborate “honey trap”: An Obama operative assigned to seduce the general as part of a political blackmail scheme.
(Full disclosure: I went to graduate school with Paula Broadwell and know her slightly. My contact with her over the last few years has been confined to the occasional ‘like’ or comment on Facebook and sending a congratulatory email when her book was published earlier this year. I know absolutely nothing about her relationship with Petraeus beyond what I’ve read in the media.)
The entrapment theory is especially revealing because it reminds us that the hysterical worldview of the Republican Party’s still-dominant far-right will not be tempered by anything as simple as losing an election.
One sees this in the presumption on the right that Petraeus’ fall must, somehow, be tied to September’s events in Benghazi. In the weeks leading up to the election, Benghazi took over America’s right-wing media outlets. On Fox News, talk radio and dozens of websites, it has become common to hear the attack on the US Consulate and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens described, ludicrously, as a political scandal comparable in scope to Watergate. When it became clear in the campaign’s final stages that the rest of the country did not see it that way and Romney himself stopped mentioning Benghazi on the campaign trail, the right concluded that the “mainstream” media was working to bury the issue as a way of protecting President Barack Obama.
Of this we can be certain: Despite last week’s election returns, this issue is not going to go away. Republicans will keep it alive, using it to do as much political damage to Obama as possible.
That, in turn, raises the obvious question: Should they? The dispassionate answer at this stage is: Maybe, but it is too early to say. The State Department is currently conducting an investigation, as are committees in both the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Any definitive answer must await the results of those inquiries.
While the first death in the field of a US ambassador since the 1970s is undeniably a tragedy, it is less clear that personal responsibility for this can be placed at some particular bureaucrat’s door. If the Benghazi Consulate did not have the security it ought to have had, that call was made somewhere in the middle levels of the State Department. Neither the president nor the secretary of state is in the business of deciding how many guards a particular embassy or consulate needs.
This is not to say that no one should be held accountable, but exactly who, and held accountable for exactly what, is probably going to take a few more weeks — maybe a few more months — to determine.
In the meantime, the right’s conspiracy theories will do nothing to help those searching for the truth. They will, however, make Washington’s still-toxic political climate worse at the very moment when a fresh start might — just might — be possible.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.