The Buck Stops Here

President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk in the White House saying “The Buck Stops Here!”  In this context, it is interesting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that she takes responsibility for the September 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  I am not sure what to make of this.

In hindsight we see that the Consulate may have been too lightly guarded, although even this is unclear.  It may not be possible to guard all consulates and embassies sufficiently to prevent all attacks.  We now see that this was not a spontaneous uprising, but a well-planned and well-organized attack.  Sometimes bad things happen even when reasonable preparations have been made.  My inclination is to blame the attackers for the attack, and hold them responsible, rather than those who were attacked.  But let’s say that mistakes were made on the American side.  Who should take responsibility for them?

As Secretary Clinton noted, “We have 275 posts around the world. We have more than 60,000 people. We live in a dangerous, risky … environment today in many places around the world and we are constantly calculating, particularly led by our security professionals, about what needs to be done, where assets need to be.”  Why would the responsibility be hers, rather than the security professionals who work for her?

If the responsibility belongs at the top, it would appear that it would be at least as much on the shoulders of the president, the chief executive, as on the secretary he appointed and who works under his orders.  Yet it was not President Obama who said “the buck stops here,” but Secretary Clinton who said the buck stops with her, and explicitly said responsibility did not extend beyond her office to those above her.  She said it was her responsibility, and not the responsibility of President Obama or Vice President Biden.  Obama and Biden did not disagree.

So, why is it that Secretary Clinton is acting so presidential, declaring that the buck stops with her, while President Obama and Vice-President Biden are acting so unpresidential and leaving the buck with Secretary Clinton (at least, if we use Truman as the model president)?

Is Secretary Clinton is taking a bullet for the president?  If this explanation is true, it shows substantial strength for Clinton, who can take that bullet and escape unscathed, but also substantial weakness for Obama, who apparently can’t.  Why would the administration want to give that appearance?

I assume Secretary Clinton ran her statement by the president before making it, and if so, the first error was that she was allowed to make it.  If she did not get the president’s prior approval, then the president appears to have little control over what goes on in the Department of State.  Again, that is an indicator of her strength; his weakness.

Now that the statement has been made, President Obama should disavow it.  The second error was that he did not, although that error can still be rectified.  He should say that the buck does not stop with Clinton, but with him.  However, if he wants to continue to avoid taking responsibility, he should say, as I did above, that while it was not Secretary Clinton’s responsibility, that sometimes bad things happen when hostile forces in foreign lands organize against us, and that we will continue to do the best we can to prevent those things from happening in the future.

I remain baffled by Secretary Clinton’s statement, because it makes her appear strong and him appear weak.  Why would Secretary Clinton create that impression?  Why would President Obama tacitly agree with her?

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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