President Obama's forceful response to the Benghazi hearings in Congress this morning is accurate. There is no there there. The hearings are a "sideshow." A circus.

And it is. It is also, at its core, a debate about diction. And debates about diction by definition can never be won. Nothing Obama says, short of: "I am an evil person who deserves to be impeached" is going to placate those who use language games to exploit the partisan kulturkampf.

The irony: Obama is not blameless. He just deserves blame for stuff the Republicans are ignoring, like: What was the administration's long-term plan for Libya? What dynamic between the CIA and the State Department was festering, and why didn't his National Security staff tend to it? What was the CIA really doing in Benghazi?

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The diction debates aren't real debates because the opponents aren't interesting in arriving at a truth. The opponent insists that he or she knows the motivation for key words and phrases that were used during the aftermath of something. The opponents also take their infallible notion of history and the motivation of actors and read it backwards. There is simply no room in that paradigm for anything resembling a reasonable counter-argument.

Diction debates therefore almost always obscure more important issues.

Back to the specifics of Benghazi:

By the time Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday shows, the idea that Benghazi wasn't an attack by terrorists had been largely dismissed. That's why her comments seemed so weird. That's why people called her out. The zeitgeist already knew what the White House was allegedly trying to cover up. To me, that suggests that the fact of a cover-up is unlikely. Why cover up something that people already knew? And why do it so clumsily? Interagency rivalries do produce Sunday show bungles. All the time.

Something else: For good or ill, the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policy includes strategic restraint when it comes to using the word "terrorism" to apply to acts committed by violent extremism. Perhaps it's an over-reaction to the Bush administration's willingness to use the word without discrimination. But more likely, it's an effort to reduce the psychological effect that a successful, small-scale (as compared to 9/11) attack in a foreign country can and will have on U.S. foreign policy.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.