With an American ambassador murdered abroad for the first time since 1979, it was clear that someone from the Obama administration had to show up on the Sunday TV talk shows to field questions about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But of all the many officials to whom the White House might have assigned the job, why on earth did that special someone turn out to be Ambassador Susan Rice?
Rice is the U.S. envoy to the United Nations in New York, not to anyplace in North Africa or the Middle East. Although President Obama has given Rice the rank of cabinet member, she has no direct responsibility for diplomatic posts in Libya, or State Department security abroad, or investigations into terrorism. America’s murdered ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, reported to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to Rice. Yet, on Sunday, it was Susan Rice who emerged as the administration’s ubiquitous expert on the Sept. 11 terrorist assault in Benghazi. With dizzying omnipresence, she turned up on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN (maybe there were a few more that I’ve missed, but you get the idea).
Not that Rice called it a terrorist assault. Her omnipresent talking point was that the assault in Benghazi was “spontaneous,” that according to “our current best assessment” it materialized as an ad hoc copycat version of the embassy storming earlier that day in Cairo, all in reaction to the “hateful video.” As she told it to NBC, the armed assault that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans was simply what happened, spontaneously, when the spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi got hijacked by “a small handful of heavily armed mobsters.” Or, as she explained it to CBS, ad hoc events spontaneously turned deadly when “extremist elements” took advantage of the heavy weapons that are “unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution.”
OK, this is clearly the official administration line, in which the blanket description “spontaneous” – akin, almost, to some sort of natural disaster? — becomes the catch-all for deflecting responsibility for any failures of administration policy or practice. The president of Libya, Mohamed Al-Magarief, may disagree, as he has — calling the attack “preplanned” and saying “I think this was al Qaeda” — but for official U.S. purposes it is now Rice’s vague summation of “spontaneity” that has been thrown like a veil over the horror in Benghazi. Who were the “mobsters”? Do they habitually carry around rocket-propelled grenades in case they run across a spontaneous demonstration? For now, and quite likely for some time to come, U.S. officials can deflect questions about the specifics, on grounds that there’s an FBI investigation going on.