On Thursday, four newsworthy events happened in the world of national security. The first American service member died in combat in Iraq since 2011, the U.S.-led coalition launched 14 strikes in Iraq and eight in Syria, President Barack Obama vetoed the $612 billion defense authorization bill, and members of the Select Committee on Benghazi spent roughly 11 hours grilling Hillary Clinton with no real new revelations on the 2012 attacks in Libya.
That was the admission from Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., after the marathon hearing wrapped late into the night. His committee, and Clinton, pledged to keep the affair nonpartisan as to not muddy the memory of the late ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans who died in the attacks. But after 11 hours, Republicans seemed to have missed an opportunity to demonstrate tough oversight of the Benghazi attack, or the underlying U.S. counterterrorism strategy Clinton supported at the time, and tried instead to score political points.
“This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil,” Gowdy said in his opening statement. “Not a single member of this committee signed up to investigate you or your email.”
Yet leading into the hearing, 72 percent of Americans said they think the committee is using the investigation to “gain political advantage,” according to a CNN/ORC poll. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., helped set that perception in late September, when he said, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today?”
On Thursday, Democrats insisted the hearing was a partisan witch hunt, Republicans insisted it wasn’t, and little new was learned about the Benghazi attack. “Why tell the Republicans to shut up when they are telling the truth, but not when they are attacking Secretary Clinton with reckless accusations that are demonstrably false?” said Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. He quoted Republican presidential candidates such as Carly Fiorina, who said Clinton has blood on her hands, to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who said Benghazi was a 3 a.m. phone call that she never picked up. “They set up this select committee with no rules, no deadline, and an unlimited budget. And they set them loose, Madam Secretary, because you’re running for president.”
Before the hearing ended, Clinton’s presidential rivals began sending out emails calling for supporters to “Stand with Trey.” Clinton’s campaign sent out memos as wellwith its own spin.
The former secretary of state said national security, traditionally, has been an area of bipartisanship in U.S. politics. “We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad, leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology,” she said. “So I’m here. Despite all the previous investigations and all the talk about partisan agendas, I’m here to honor those we lost.”
But she also used the witness chair as a soapbox to make her presidential pitch. “Retreat from the world is not an option. America cannot shrink from our responsibility to lead,” she said later. “That doesn’t mean we should ever return to the go-it-alone foreign policy of the past … We need creative, confident leadership that integrates and balances the tools of diplomacy, development and defense.”
Over 17 months, the select committee has held four hearings and conducted some 54 interviews or depositions to the tune of roughly $4.7 million. Beyond Gowdy’s probe, there has been one internal investigation and seven other congressional investigations into Benghazi, all of which cleared Clinton and other government officials of wrongdoing.
By contrast, Congress convened two committees to investigate the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 Americans and prompted the “War on Terror” that led to invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the House Select committee uncovered Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, triggering an FBI probe into whether security was compromised. After the release of tens of thousands of emails, the committee has not drawn any connection between that practice and the attacks. Republicans repeatedly asked Clinton to explain why she seemingly had far more emails relating to Libya from former Clinton advisor and confident Sidney Blumenthal than from Stevens, or other staffers.
Clinton said she did not have a computer in her State Department office. “I did not conduct most of the business I did on behalf of our country on email,” she said. “I don’t want you to have a mistaken impression about what I did and how I did it.”
The former secretary has struggled with perceptions of untrustworthiness due in part to the hyperfocus on her emails. But with the hearing, Republicans handed Clinton her highest-profile, most expansive opportunity yet to put the server controversy behind her and go on the offensive on her national security record.
Clinton was calm but firm through most of the hearing, but grew more audibly exasperated as it dragged on. “Look, we have diplomatic facilities in war zones,” she said to Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., who retorted: “And you’re their boss.”
“You’re right,” Clinton said. “You’re right I am.”
But Republicans failed to exploit perhaps Clinton’s greatest national security vulnerability: the subsequent unraveling of Libya since 2011. Clinton was one of the strongest advocates for the military intervention that removed Gaddafi but created a power vacuum that warring factions and an increasingly potent Islamic State are fighting to fill.
“You persuaded President Obama to intervene militarily. Isn’t that right?” Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. asked.
“I supported doing what we could to support our European and Arab partners in their effort on a humanitarian basis, a strategic basis, to prevent Gaddafi from launching and carrying massacres,” Clinton responded.
“Our Libya policy be couldn’t have happened without you because you were its chief architect,” Roskam said later. “Things in Libya today are a disaster.”
Said Clinton, “That’s not a view that I will ascribe to.”
Shortly after the exchange, the Clinton campaign sent reporters a press release titled: “In Libya, Clinton Worked with Our Allies to Stand Up to a Murderous Dictator.”
“The current unrest in Libya is concerning and must be addressed – but the alternative would have been far worse,” it reads. “Had we opted for inaction, Libya would look something like what Syria looks like today.”
But lawmakers spent little more time than that amid the day-long hearing on Clinton’s role in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy that contributed to the conflict in Libya, and elsewhere. It’s not that Clinton refused to give answers on Benghazi; she admittedly doesn’t have them for the chaos she helped create in Libya, and what she’d do differently to reverse it as commander in chief.
What lessons has she drawn to upgrade the Clinton doctrine of “smart power”? Eleven hours, and the committee didn’t really ask, nor did Clinton really answer.
“[Stevens] understood we will never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security and that we inevitably must accept a level of risk to protect our country and advance our interests and values,” she said. “And make no mistake, the risks are real.”