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In Asia, Obama Reasserts His Foreign Policy Role


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Obama is traveling in Asia this week, reasserting his foreign policy role after months of focus on his re-election bid. But even as the president works to shore up relationships around the world, Republican members of Congress continue to challenge the administration's handling of the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. And those challenges could make it hard for the president to confirm his choice to be the next secretary of state.

Joining us to talk about Benghazi is Cokie Roberts. Cokie, this argument about who knew what, when, before the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi continues. What's it about?

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Well, the basic charge, Linda, is that the national security apparatus knew that the attack in Benghazi had been a terrorist attack, not a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video. And, of course, that's what U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice insisted on, on several Sunday talk shows after the attack. And the critics say the administration didn't want to reveal that it was a terrorist attack, because that information fought against the narrative that President Obama had killed Osama bin Laden and decimated al-Qaida.

So, critics say the administration hid the information so as not to damage the president, politically. And the latest example they're giving are these so-called talking points that Ambassador Rice used on the Sunday shows. And whether those talking points were changed, from the time the CIA developed them, if so - who change them.

Now, the Democratic chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, says she's seen them and the only one insignificant word was changed. It was consulate was changed to mission. We're really, you know, talking about angels on the head of a pin here. But Senator Feinstein says she'll investigate this.

WERTHEIMER: But what's really going on?


WERTHEIMER: Is this really about Benghazi or is this something else?

ROBERTS: It seems to me, Linda, that it's about Republicans trying to regain supremacy on national security. As you well know, the fact it's Jon McCain and Lindsey Graham leading the charge on this, is instructive. They both believe that their party has gone off the deep end on a lot of other issues, especially immigration. But they want to keep the traditional Republican advantage on defense and national security. And for the moment, the Republicans have lost that as well.

And so, those senators probably think it's the easiest place to start rebuilding. And the Benghazi attack seems the perfect place to lay down a marker, but a couple of things are getting in the way. One is that their guy, David Petraeus, whom many Republicans were touting for president, is having problems of his own - to put it mildly.

But also what's happening right now, between Israel and the Palestinians, leaves the president no choice but to be tough on Israel's behalf. And it makes it harder for the Republicans to paint them as weak-kneed.

WERTHEIMER: Now, some Republicans are making it clear, though, that they will make it difficult for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be confirmed as secretary of state, if President Obama should choose her to succeed Hillary Clinton. Do you think that the new-found strength of women in the Senate will help her?

ROBERTS: I think it probably will. I think that the Democratic women in the Senate are likely to lead the charge to confirm her, if her name is put forward. But I think the real problem for Republicans is women in the electorate rather than their own colleagues. Look, they've just gone through an election where they're keenly aware that they lost women and minority voters. Do they really want their first big fight to be over not confirming a minority woman? Probably not.

But it's also true that we now have a critical mass of 20 women in the Senate. Did you ever think we'd be able to say that, Linda?

WERTHEIMER: It's remarkable.


ROBERTS: It is. And it makes a difference in all kinds of things. And they tend to have a way of putting things in a way that makes their male colleagues cringe. So, I don't think that the Republicans senators want to get on the wrong side here.

We did have a funny moment at the end of last week, Linda, where the women in the Senate were having their picture taken. And there was not enough room for them to primp in the ladies room because it's not big enough. Capitol's going to have to do something about that.


WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Cokie.

MONTAGNE: And that's Cokie Roberts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Wertheimer
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Cokie Roberts
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.