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Jon Huntsman: Benghazi, Susan Rice Criticism Overblown

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WASHINGTON -- Former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman on Monday urged lawmakers, including those in his own party, to temper their criticism of the administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, said that it would have been nearly impossible for authorities to instantly obtain accurate intelligence about who was responsible for the September attack, which resulted in the death of four officials. Because of that, he said, recent criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for not immediately declaring the attack an act of terror was either politically motivated or misplaced.

"The issue of Benghazi, I think you can attribute to the fog of war, more than anything else," Huntsman said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "When you're in a wartime setting and you have an attack like that -- let's face it. No one is prepared for an attack like that. There is, as Robert McNamara used to say, there is a fog of war. And it takes awhile to sort through the details. And it doesn't do a whole lot of good for the political class to point fingers before you even know what was behind it. And you're not going to know that [immediately]."

In offering up his assessment, Huntsman became the rare Republican to downplay the boiling controversy surrounding the matter. Rice went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss her post-attack talking points with aggrieved Republican lawmakers. Early reaction suggested that she ran into a proverbial buzzsaw.

”Bottom line: I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters after the meeting.

“It was certainly clear from the beginning that we knew that those with ties to al Qaeda were involved in the attack on the embassy, and clearly the impression that was given, or the information given to the American people, was wrong," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

Rice's initial statements following the attacks did not pinpoint terrorism as the cause. Instead, she said that intelligence suggested that extremist elements within Libya had taken advantage of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim film.

Since then, it has become clearer that a terrorist faction in the country, believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda, was responsible for the attack. Graham, Ayotte, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have suggested that Rice deliberately changed her talking points for the political benefit of the president. But a steady stream of evidence has pointed to a more benign explanation: that the intelligence community was not immediately comfortable calling the attack an act of terrorism and couched its language accordingly.

"In the course of the meeting, we explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi," Rice said in a statement. "While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved."

Rice added that there was no intention to "mislead the American people at any stage in this process."

For Huntsman, the debate over who massaged what talking points and when is a distraction. While not downplaying the deaths in Benghazi, he noted that there have been other foreign policy developments in the past month that have also demanded attention.

"I heard endless chatter about Benghazi during the last several weeks and not a bit about the leadership changes in China," said Huntsman. "Now I needn't tell you which over the longer term is going to impact us as people. You've got once-per-decade leadership changes in China, whose economic and security policies will have a profound impact on the next generation of Americans."

Speaking from his home in Washington D.C., Huntsman called this a moment of unique, historic possibilities in U.S.-China relations. The new leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has more political flexibility than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and he comes into office at a moment of acute pressure for both economic and domestic political reform, Huntsman noted.

Calling for regular head-of-state negotiations between the U.S. and China and a toning down of some of the political rhetoric -- "You can't just designate them a currency manipulator without reverberations recurring on the other end," he said -- the former ambassador outlined the obstacles ahead.

The goal for the Obama administration, he argued, is "helping China understand that in being on the world stage, there are greater expectations of the role that they will play. It is helping them understand that a weapon obtained by the Iranian government would result in tremendous instability in the region that would upend their raw material supply line. Sometimes it is walking them through things they never had to consider before because they're new to the world stage."

Disclosure: This reporter's wife works for the Obama administration on matters of congressional oversight, including investigations into the attack in Benghazi.

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