Gwen’s Take: I See Your Benghazi and Raise You One IRS

Posted: Thu, 05/16/2013 - 4:04pm

Scandal dominated Washington's attention this week as the White House worked on damage control [Photo: CNN].

It was scandal week in Washington, but because of an accident of scheduling, I had the opportunity to view it through an altered lens.

The president’s week was turning into a very bad one -– with new revelations about Benghazi talking points, IRS political targeting, and the seizure of news organizations’ phone records –- as I was completing my very first visit to Israel.

On one side of the world, scandals were collapsing on one another like an origami bird -– fragile and complex. On the other side, hard up beside the Sea of Galilee -– the old and enduring disputes existed side by side.

It was all about juxtaposition. Taken separately, the Benghazi, IRS and phone records stories are each hugely complicated. But for them all to unfold in one week was a bit mindboggling.

The natural response for the president’s political opponents was to find a common thread. It went like this: the president must have known. If he didn’t, he should have. If new information suggests he neither knew nor had reason to know, it was a failure of leadership.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. who appeared on Capitol Hill to defend the Justice Department [Photo: CNN].

The truth is usually more complicated than political accusations suggest. The President clearly endorsed the Department of Justice’s investigation into leaks following reporting conducted by the Associated Press on the grounds that national security was at risk. This he is not apologizing for.

When it comes to Benghazi, the White House has repeatedly dismissed out of hand the argument that officials concocted talking points to disguise its early assessments of the attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya. Because the debate has centered on what people said in the wake of the attack, rather than on how to prevent it from happening again, the stacks of emails released this week proved to be anticlimactic when evidence of collusion did not surface.

The most politically dangerous of the week’s dustups was the revelation that the IRS appeared to target conservative groups for special scrutiny while ignoring liberal organizations. You can tell it was the most dangerous because it was the only one where someone was fired – in this case the Acting IRS Commissioner.

Obama named Daniel I. Werfel to be the new acting commissioner of the IRS [Photo:CNN]

These disputes were so all-consuming that they all but eclipsed other big stories, with relatively little attention paid to the declining deficit, the Keystone oil pipeline or the news that military sexual assaults are skyrocketing.

Politics, you see, trumps all.

But if you want to see enduring conflict that runs far deeper than this week’s Washington scandal, go to Israel. There are not just disagreements; there are walls. On the day I visited the Wailing Wall, wandering around as a tourist, dozens of black-clad Israeli police with cans of tear gas strapped across their chests had just broken up a protest among orthodox women over who should pray on the men’s side of the wall. In the Middle East, the distance to conflict is measured in land, not political theory.

Survival, you see, trumps all.

It helped me to put this week’s Washington uproar into a certain context. But it also reminded me of the thing our hyper-partisan nation’s capital shares in common with flashpoints around the world.

With Democrats digging their heels in and Republicans throwing rocks over the wall, there is precious little incentive for compromise. I call it geopolitical poker.

I leave it to you to decide who is winning – or losing -- the game.

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