Paul Greenberg
The investigations continue unabated as the accusations and defenses multiply in the aftermath of the murderous attack on our diplomats in Benghazi. But this much we know: American lives, including that of our ambassador to Libya, were lost. Chris Stevens was respected at home and loved in Libya, where he had become a symbol of America's good will and, more important, the ability of this country and the West in general to act in freedom's cause, not just talk about it.

The energetic and courageous American ambassador had played an important role in Libyans' liberation from the Gadhafi era, whatever the uncertain and tumultuous aftermath of that revolution. And he was playing an even more important one in Libya's uncertain quest for stability and democracy in a part of the world not known for either quality.

Chris Stevens was the kind of American envoy we need, and the kind we lost this September 11th thanks to the incompetence of this administration, whatever may be discovered about its explanations afterward. That much we know, and should not skip over lightly.

Competing narratives of what happened at Benghazi still flood the news, often providing more heat than light. But in all the controversy, one obdurate truth cannot be denied: This administration, this State Department, this president failed in their first duty, to protect American lives. That is the starting point of this story and it could be the end after all has been said.

First our envoys were killed; now it looks as if any hope of finding out just what happened in Benghazi and why may be lost in all the political infighting.

Our ambassador to the United Nations, among others, was still repeating a dubious account of that attack's origins days after she and perhaps the White House knew better. Or certainly should have known better.

Now the word is that the Hon. Susan Rice, that font of misinformation, may be nominated as the next secretary of state to succeed Hillary Clinton -- a possibility, perhaps probability, that has understandably infuriated senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Not to mention the growing segment of American public opinion that does not get its news pre-masticated by White House spokesmen, NPR or any of the other usual apologists for this administration's failures.

At first, the official story was that the assault on our compound in Benghazi was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against a made-in-America video that had offended the memory of the Prophet. That line is no longer credible -- if it ever was. Doubts about it surfaced almost immediately after the attack, and the director of the CIA at the time, Gen. David Petraeus, has told Congress his agency knew it was bogus almost from the beginning of this affair.

For the moment, the president has taken refuge in the first resort of a leader under fire: huffy indignation. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham want to go after somebody," he said, "they should go after me."

No sooner suggested than done. Sen. Graham immediately took the president up on his suggestion: "Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander-in-chief before, during and after the attack."

Sen. Graham's direct words to the president are less an accusation than a fact, for this president failed to provide adequate protection for our diplomats on the ground, and then failed to level with the American people for a remarkably long time after the bloody disaster at Benghazi.

Even days after the attack -- or was it more like a week? -- Ambassador Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were still emphasizing the supposedly spontaneous nature of the attack at Benghazi without fear of contradiction from the White House. Even now, a shred or two of that old story, full of holes as it is, still surfaces among the administration's defenders.

The president's claim to have told the American people that the attack on Benghazi was a terrorist raid from the first won't wash. Just because he added a little boilerplate about this country standing fast against terror to his initial statement scarcely constitutes candor; it was just an empty rhetorical gesture from a president who specializes in them. Those four coffins arriving home were much more eloquent. No wonder the president's initial statement was forgotten in a moment, while what happened at Benghazi hasn't been, and can't be till all the doubts are cleared away, if ever.

One of the first questions confronting any administration, any institution, any president when failure is exposed is: What shall we tell people?

The temptation is always to hedge the facts, if not make up a few. Barack Obama would not be the first president to try to wiggle out of an embarrassing failure by misleading the public. Even the best are tempted to take refuge in deception.

Consider the initial response of Dwight Eisenhower, trusted president and general, when an American spy plane was downed over the Soviet Union in 1960: Why, that was no spy plane, but a U-2 weather-monitoring aircraft that had gone off course. Only after it was revealed that the pilot had been captured was the cover story abandoned and the truth admitted.

But no one serious ever accused Ike of lying for some crass political interest rather than the national interest. He no more considered himself lying than he did when he was deceiving the Germans about just where the Allies would land come D-Day. Now the country was engaged in another war, albeit a Cold War, and all was fair in love and espionage.

Nor did that president have to mislead the American people to establish his standing as a leader. He had acquired his reputation the old-fashioned way: He'd earned it -- in war and peace. "I like Ike" wasn't just a political slogan in the Fifties, it was almost a national mood, even if the usual intellectuals tried to dismiss Ike as just an old duffer. Most Americans surely knew better. And even more may do so now in history's light. The U-2 Affair can now be seen in perspective.

This vicious assault on our diplomats occurred in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign. At the time, Barack Obama was being billed, fairly enough, as the commander-in-chief who'd succeeded in hunting down terrorist-in-chief Osama bin Laden. The sloganeering was crass ("Osama bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive!") but effective.

Then came this humiliating news out of Benghazi, just when al-Qaida was supposed to be a spent force. Was that the source of this essentially false narrative about a spontaneous demonstration just getting out of hand? The suspicion is unavoidable and, as the investigations proliferate, will remain in the background as an underlying explanation of this president's changing story about what happened in Benghazi. Cover-ups do tend to unravel. We'll see if that's true in this case.

It's an old rule in the military: A commander is responsible for all his unit does or fails to do, and now this commander-in-chief, whatever his talk about responsibility, will be held accountable by a judge far more formidable than his political critics or even American public opinion. He will be held responsible before the bar of History.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.