Over the last few weeks, I have argued with some friends and family members over the terrorist attack in Benghazi. As I’ve not been able to make a comprehensive argument on this in any single exchange, I am going to do that now. If you’re reading this and you’re already convinced there has been a cover-up or some kind of Obama Administration political machinations, please consider this: you can read the following critically, looking for weak or inconsistent arguments and building the case for why I am wrong. Or you can read this with a completely closed mind, dismissing anything you disagree with or refusing to accept the arguments at their face. I can’t determine how you read this, but I do stand by every word that follows.
And my confidence in what follows flows from my personal experience working at a US consulate in the Middle East, working at the State Department Operations Center (which fielded crisis calls in emergencies, among other tasks), and working in the George W Bush White House in the Office of Combating Terrorism. Yes, I have my own biases and blind spots, but I am trying to see this attack and tragedy and the political brouhaha from a professional perspective.
So before the attack, did Washington ignore requests for additional security for Benghazi? There are two basic types of “please-send-additional-security” requests. One is routine and reflects the prudence and concern for the immediate that all good diplomats exercise when running an embassy. Everyone always wants more help and sees the local security risks as the most pressing, however prudence comes in to play — resources are finite, after all — and so the routine message is, “please send more help.” The second kind of request is made directly and personally by the ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission and it’s usually accompanied by a phone call and reference to specific intelligence or a specific security risk. In the summer, as September 11 approached and things continued to simmer in the Middle East, our folks in Libya made a routine request for more security. Folks in Washington had to determine where to put finite resources and, when looking at Libya, did not see a threat greater than other places in the region. The country was unstable and still wrenching through post-revolution, but the mood was mostly pro-American – certainly more so than Yemen or Egypt. In hindsight, more security in Benghazi would have been prudent. But the people tasked with understanding the full range of security risks and deploying finite resources to address those risks did not come to that conclusion — something known only in hindsight. So a better question might be, does the US have the right process in place for determining where to send finite security resources? This is not a “who-is-to-blame-in-Washington” issue — it’s about understanding risk and calibrating the response. Scandal or cover-up? No.
(for more on embassy security, the New York Times magazine ran a great piece today with comments from a slew of old foreign service pros talking about the balance between security and effective diplomacy).
During the attack, did someone order security forces to Stand Down, taking potentially valuable help and protection away from Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues? This assertion has been repeatedly shown to be false. Assets on the ground reacted as quickly as they could. There was no “stand down” order. And this is not a matter of interpretation or opinion. This is fact. (at some point, even in a politically-charged debate, actual facts need to be respected, otherwise we’re all just blathering windbags with kindergarten-level arguments). Scandal or cover-up? Only if you want to believe every conspiracy-theory or deeply biased source.
Was the attack planned or an opportunistic strike catalyzed by protests over the anti-Islamic video? In terms of outcome, what difference does it make? I understand this question is tied directly to a scandal/cover-up theory (detailed below) but to understand what really transpired, its simplistic and shallow to believe the entire event was 100% one thing or another. No, it was not just video-inspired protesters getting out of hand. But the protests — in Benghazi and elsewhere — provided a catalyst for action (and cover for extremists to move into position). Does the attack take place absent the protests? Maybe, maybe not — but answering that question could inform counterterrorism analysis and policies. Are counterterrorism officials misreading local political developments and failing to connect the links between extremist groups in the region? Are terrorist groups adopting crowd-incitement-as-cover as a new tactic? Step back for a moment — are any of these questions being asked when Benghazi is debated? Simply, no. Scandal or cover-up? Only if you think our counterterrorism folks aren’t getting grilled enough over this.
After the attack, why did US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice blame the attack on the anti-Islamic video when many believe it was a terrorist attack? I think it was a mistake to put Ambassador Rice on TV that Sunday. My guess is Obama believed having Rice go through the talking points would show the Administration was on top of things. I strongly doubt part of the risk/reward calculation at the time was blowback over characterization of the attack. It’s easy now to forget the context, but useful to recall that at the time, countless demonstrations — some violent and deadly — had been occurring throughout the Middle East, all supposedly triggered by an anti-Islamic video. It’s also worth recalling that candidate Romney — on September 11 and 12 — made a statement and held a press conference specifically to criticize – and politicize — the Administration’s response to the protests and attack in Benghazi. I wish Obama had taken the high road and said, “we don’t know enough about what happened in Libya and we’re not going to speculate at this time.” This week’s Hill hearings cleared up a few things, not least of which was that Rice used the language that reflected what the intelligence community believed at the time and was willing to say. And I know from experience that senior administration officials don’t go on the Sunday shows and talk about anything connected to intelligence matters without every word getting pre-cleared. So why did Rice say what she did? Because that was the consensus best assessment at the time. Scandal or cover-up? Only if you believe it is scandalous to have the intel agencies review what US ambassadors say on TV.
But, wait, the real issue isn’t just what Rice said, it’s how Obama mentioned the video during his UN address and was reluctant to call it terrorism and the whole video story was just a diversion so people wouldn’t think al Qaeda was back and then maybe question the whole “Osama is Dead” thing and how Obama thinks he’s so much better at national security! This is the persistent conspiracy theory — that Obama and his staff saw Benghazi as a domestic political issue from the start and tried to spin it for the domestic audience. First of all, the burden is on the conspiracy/cover-up proponents to explain exactly what political benefit Obama calculated in deciding to “spin” Benghazi. Were there voters whose support for Obama hinged on his execution of the War on Terror and decimation of al Qeada? Or voters leaning towards Romney but unwilling to take the time to vote until they realized Obama wasn’t the national security guy he claimed to be? Look, I realize part of the appeal of a conspiracy-cover-up story is the dark mysteries and unknown underlying forces. But, seriously, Obama — during the fog of the first few days when his intel people were still unsure what happened — made some weird political decision that voters needed reassurance the Middle East is messy, but not terrorist-filled messy? Again, the burden of proof is on the conspiracy-believers to come up with something credible.
Real life – real actual on-the-ground diplomacy, real actual on-the-ground responses to terrorist attacks – is not like an episode of “24” or a scene from “The Bourne Identity.” People on the ground, in the region, and in Washington don’t know every detail as its happening. Things are uncertain and messy and, in the case of Benghazi, sometimes tragic. Refusing to accept that and demanding answers or simply wanting someone to blame is willfully ignorant and immature.
This is what I take away from Benghazi: Chris was one of the best diplomats I ever knew and while I am not going back into the diplomatic service, I can show some respect for Chris by supporting and defending my friends and colleagues and others who are engaged in a truly noble profession by continuing to write and speak about foreign affairs, by continuing to try to understand the Middle East and US policy, and by continuing to care about US interests, not US politics.