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PRUDEN: Obama’s challenge to the three amigos

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama is still playing Sir Walter Raleigh, standing between himself and Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations and the designated scapegoat in the Benghazi cover-up.

"Susan Rice is extraordinary," the president told his Cabinet as he convened its first session since he was re-elected. "Couldn't be prouder of the job she's done." Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, no doubt grateful that she had not been elected to scapegoathood, led the round of applause for Mrs. Rice.

Spreading his cloak across the mud hole, however much it was offered in the spirit of Sir Walter, is not likely to keep the little lady's feet dry. But it's the least a gentleman, or even someone pretending to be a gentleman, could do for a scapegoat of his own making.

Neither the ambassador's critics in the U.S. Senate nor the toothless tigers of the mainstream media have wanted to ask the question that has been begging to be asked since the tragedy broke on Sept. 11: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The two amigos — John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — have been joined by Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire in pursuing Mrs. Rice, just as the White House wants them to do. That's how shell games work.

Mr. Obama is a master of sleight-of-hand, though it's true that he might be working with easy marks, willing to be rolled. As long as the president can keep the anger of the amigos and their colleagues in the Senate focused on the ladies in his Cabinet, he'll suffer no pain. Mrs. Rice emerged from her meeting with the three amigos unchastened, though the amigos were said to be angry and frustrated, but wouldn't say why. It's likely that Mrs. Rice did not show the proper respect, not having the usual forelock to tug.

The rap on Susan Rice is mostly that she's arrogant, vulgar, disrespectful and full of herself, qualities which may not endear her to others but hardly set her apart in Washington, where humility and modesty are not often highly regarded. She does not have a reputation for any of those nice qualities. During a meeting of senior staff at the State Department, she once shot the middle-finger salute at Richard Holbrooke, widely admired for holding several diplomatic posts including the one Mrs. Rice has now.

She mocked Mr. McCain (as well as Mrs. Clinton) mercilessly in the first Obama campaign. She derided his fact-finding trip to Iraq in 2008 as "strolling around the market in a flak jacket" and said he had a "tendency to shoot first and ask questions later." Senators, who often have egos as big as elephants, have elephantine memories to match. Remembering affronts is natural.

"She can be a most undiplomatic diplomat," observes Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, "and there likely aren't enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her."

But keeping attention focused on Susan Rice, as tempting as such a target for "unexpended ordnance" might be, is what the amigos must do. Mrs. Rice's role in Benghazi is small beer.

The president, in fact, may feel a few pangs of male guilt for sending out an unarmed woman to do what he should have done. Mrs. Rice insisted in her round of Sunday-morning television interviews, five days after the American ambassador was killed, that the attack was Muslim revenge for that infamous video that almost nobody saw.

The president knew better: just two days after the attack, he was told by his intelligence briefers, armed with communications intercepts, that members of the mob had intimate connections to al Qaeda. Someone should inquire why the president didn't tell Mrs. Rice about that before he dispatched her to that unhappy place beneath the bus — and why the ambassador in Benghazi had to pay with his life for her ticket.

The "facts" — which hardly rose even to the level of "factoids" — collided with the Obama campaign's fairy tale that the commander in chief, with his very own trigger finger, had already finished off al Qaeda once and for all.

The questions crying out for asking were the questions familiar to top-level Washington scandal: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Mr. Obama has invited his Senate inquisitors to "go after me," not the little lady at the U.N. The three amigos choose their weapons.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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