Reagan, Terror, And Benghazi

When news broke that William Clark, a longtime aide to Ronald Reagan, had recently passed away, several conservative media outlets quickly posted tributes to the man. Touted as the "most important and influential presidential confidante" in nearly a century, Clark was warmly remembered as a "a great treasure to the nation" and an "inspiration."

By all indications the laurels were well earned and Judge Clark, as he was known, served his country with distinction. What's telling about the warm words written about Clark are how they contrast so sharply with the tone the same type of conservative outlets use to describe current foreign policy and national security advisors who were in any way connected to the terrorist attack in Benghazi last September.

I'm referring to the strangely personal and almost hysterical way pundits have attacked Obama officials, including the president's national security advisor, in the wake of Benghazi, where four Americans were killed, including a U.S. ambassador.

For the right-wing noise machine, Benghazi trumps all. It stands as a singular failure in American foreign policy and represents one of the darkest days in recent U.S. history. It's worse than Watergate, was a bigger story than Hurricane Sandy last October, and symbolizes an unconscionable failure to protect Americans serving abroad.

But here's what's interesting about Clark's recently lauded resume when viewed against the right wing's permanent Benghazi name calling: Clark served as Reagan's national security advisor between 1982 and 1983. On April 18, 1983, Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Sixty-three people were killed, including 17 Americans, eight of whom worked for the CIA.

Five months later local terrorists struck again. During a lengthy air assault from nearby artillerymen, two Marines stationed at the Beirut airport were killed. Then on October 23, just days after Clark stepped down as national security advisor to become Secretary of the Interior, the Marines' Beirut barracks cratered after a 5-ton truck driven by a suicide bomber and carrying the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT exploded outside; 241 Americans were killed, marking the deadliest single attacks on U.S. citizens overseas since World War II.

Reagan had sent 1,800 Marines to Beirut as part of a larger peacekeeping mission following the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization's withdrawal from the country. But national security experts, including some members of Reagan's administration, warned that the Marines were vulnerable to attack.

In the aftermath, Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the commander of the Marines in Beirut, said, “It didn't take a military expert to realize that our troops had been placed in an indefensible situation.” Conservative columnist William Safire referred to the Beirut debacle as Reagan's “Bay of Pigs.”

Conservatives have casually smeared numerous Obama officials over Benghazi for the last eleven months, yet the embassy attacks surrounding Clark's tenure as Reagan's national security adviser apparently did not blemish his long public career. 

Despite the chronic terror attacks on a U.S. embassy and related facilities-- three separate assaults that claimed nearly 270 American lives in the span of just six months in 1983 -- Judge Clark is to be remembered as a patriot. But Obama officials are supposedly guilty of the unforgivable, treasonous crime of Benghazi.

The contrast is striking. And it says a lot not only about the double standard used to grade Republican and Democratic failures, but also about the vicious way conservative commentators now effortlessly demonize public policy opponents.

Benghazi has become such a momentous touchstone, conservatives insist, because Americans lives were lost at the hands of terrorists. Also, they claim Obama reacted callously to the news by flying to a fundraiser in Las Vegas the following day, an unpardonable sin.

But note that after the fourth deadly Beirut bombing on a U.S. facility, this one on September 20, 1984, Reagan refused to curtail his re-election campaign appearances for just one day, even though he enjoyed an insurmountable lead in the polls.

On and on the hypocrisy goes, as conservatives, railing against Benghazi security, conveniently ignore what was arguably the low point in U.S. Embassy security.    

But again, for me the telling point in the wake of Clark's death is not so much the naked double standard in play. It's the tone. It's the willingness to treat with respect a Republican public servant whose time in the Reagan administration was marked by serious security failures, as compared to the mindless demonization that's unfolded for the last year in the wake of Benghazi. It's the shallow effort by Noise Machine participants to gin up ratings, spike online clicks, and to try to sell newspapers via phony outrage. And to also destroy a presidency.

Ten months ago Salon's Joan Walsh bemoaned how the Benghazi frenzy had already “reached the realm of lurid conservative conspiracy porn.” Those attacks have only gotten worse, by a factor of perhaps five or ten.

People like Judge Clark were lucky they served in a simpler, more honest time.