Too many people are taking responsibility for the Sept. 11 attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. In Tuesday's debate, President Obama evoked the crowd-pleasing sentiment immortalized by President Harry Truman: The buck stops here. And then there's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who claimed culpability earlier by noting that she's "in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world."

There are a lot of politics flying around here, but Clinton was closer to reality. In any organization -- and the government is a pretty big one -- most day-to-day decisions are not made at the top. "The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals," Clinton noted. It's the security professionals who "weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision."

And that's not to mention the general difficulty -- in real life -- of thwarting an attack planned covertly by a determined enemy. There will be investigations, as there should be, and perhaps mistakes will be revealed that can we can learn from. But in a confusing situation, incompetence should never be our first presumption. (Yes, that goes for 9/11, too.) We seem to crave having someone to blame, as if it can erase the murkiness of human affairs.

It would have been better had Obama responded frankly to questions about Libya in Tuesday's debate, or all along, for that matter. Four years ago, there was a hope that he would be the sort of leader who could speak concisely, yet forthrightly, about complex things. It was an aspect of the presidency that the country sorely lacked, and still does, and still will.


David Banks is the Star Tribune's assistant commentary editor.