The finger-pointing and misdirection around the murder of four Americans at the US Consulate in Benghazi last month is an embarrassing spectacle that just won't go away.
Why should it? Republicans are getting their lumps in on Democrats. The Democrats, on the defensive and mishandling the communications side of all this, are inviting the abuse. The ideological news outlets like Fox have a new cudgel. The rest of the press gets an easy he said/she said narrative that requires little in the way of thought or analysis.
Last night it was the presidential debate. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to call President Obama a liar in regard to events in Benghazi, lying himself in the process. Obama took theatrical umbrage at the very thought that he would ever (ever!) "play politics" over a tragedy. The political press is still chortling over the exchange.
Everyone's a winner, right? Well, no.
Folks interested in the state of diplomatic security, the emerging politics of Libya and the rest of the region, and the role the US should play in seeking to shape events abroad are getting the short end of the stick from their elected representatives and much of the press.
What was particularly grating about the back and forth between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama last night over whether the president had uttered the words "act of terror" in his Sept. 12 statement on Benghazi (he did) was its complete irrelevance to what went wrong and what the US should do next. President Obama's choice of uttering (or not) the word "terror" 24 hours after a tragedy that pretty much froze America's intelligence collecting abilities in Libya's second-largest city was of no real world relevance whatsoever.
Some of the administration's public statements have been concerning (United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice's repeated insistence that an obviously well-planned attack was "spontaneous" and decision to blame US intelligence agencies comes to mind) and I think, on balance, do speak to an administration seeking to put the rosiest spin on the tragedy in its aftermath. But the elevation of that into the crime of the century? That may create political gain, but distracts from the deep holes in diplomatic security globally (largely due to demands from Republicans in Congress to slash the diplomatic security budget) and a grown-up discussion about Libya.
Quite frankly, it takes months to figure out what really happened in these situations. The Bush administration suggested for years that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US (he wasn't). Even now, there is conflicting information from Benghazi about what went down. Gert van Langendonck, who is reporting for us there, says many locals insist there was a demonstration at the consulate around the time it was attacked. The State Department now says there was no demonstration (after earlier insisting that not only was there a demonstration, but it was the instigator for the attack). What really happened? I would be leery of anyone who's too definitive about anything in Libya at this point.
Of course that won't slow down the political partisans. Jennifer Rubin, a far-right Washington Post columnist has a fact-free article on Benghazi that's typical of the way much of the press is letting American readers down. She writes of a "lead from behind strategy that left (Libya) in chaos and at the mercy of jihadists" in seeking to blame Obama for the deaths:
Clinton is the least culpable on this one. She was one of the principal figures pushing the United States to do something about Libya. But the foot-dragging, the decision to off-load decision-making to the Arab League and delegate operations to NATO were all part of White House policy that wanted to diminish US involvement and leave the heavy lifting to others. As a result, Al Qaeda was much better “established” in the country than the United States, according to Lt. Col. Andrew Wood in his sworn testimony before a House committee.
Her piece is a classic of the genre, in that when her assertions aren't demonstrably false; they're merely highly unlikely. The United States did do something about Libya. It led a NATO coalition that, without an invasion, helped Libya's rebels triumph over autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in an eight-month war that ended his 42-year reign. The US flew thousands of sorties over the country in that time, second only to France (oh, the shame) in the NATO coalition. Was the Obama administration wrong to help the rebellion because post-Qaddafi Libya is a friendlier place for jihadis? A worthy topic for consideration. But that is not what Ms. Rubin is getting at.
As for Wood blaming a "White House policy that wanted to ... leave the heavy lifting to others" that "left Al Qaeda better 'established'" in the country: He said no such thing. Not in his prepared remarks. Or in answering questions from members of Congress.
He did say Al Qaeda was a bigger presence in Libya since the US helped drive out Mr. Qaddafi, but he didn't lay the blame for that anywhere in his remarks, certainly not on some "lead from behind" strategy. The US was very much lead from the front in the case of the Iraq war, and Al Qaeda was much better established there after the US invasion and eight-year war than it was under Mr. Hussein. There is no reason, no reason at all, to have expected a different outcome in the case of an invasion of Libya.
The US had been leading from the front in Benghazi with a huge presence of diplomatic and intelligence people.
Woods was upset about security there. He argued that they should have had a lot more American security or they should have pulled out completely. He pointed out that the British Consulate in Benghazi had shut and "actually had an MOU with us to leave their weapons and vehicles on our compound there in Benghazi." The Red Cross, too, had pulled out of Benghazi and that worried Wood:
When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi; we were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi. I voiced my concern to the country team meeting. Although it was a difficult thing, the country team was left with no options at that point to – to try and change the security profile there in Benghazi. The resources had been withdrawn. The decision to not renew the (Site Security Team) was pretty much a foregone conclusion by that point in time, but I urged them to do something and anything, to include withdrawal from Benghazi, although I knew that was impossible at the time.
The italics above are mine. A complaint about "leading from behind?" Far from it. But Wood's measured, professional criticisms don't serve Rubin's political narrative (or anyone else's, really). The fact that a senior State Department bureaucrat made the wrong call on managing scarce resources (in hindsight she should have laid on more security) was not something Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or Obama would have, or should have, been aware of.
The stakes in Benghazi for the US are pretty high. Eastern Libya was the center of the uprising against Qaddafi, the part of the country most uniformly supportive of the US and NATO assistance for the rebellion in 2011. But it's also the heartland for Libya's Islamists, from its own version of the Muslim Brotherhood to the offshoots of the terrorist Libyan Islamist Fighting Group who are now major militia powers in their own right (one Islamist militia, Ansar al-Sharia, has been publicly blamed for the attack on the US). Oh, and it's also where most of Libya's oil is found.
Ambassador Stevens and the large consulate in Benghazi were there working to protect US interests, and to collect intelligence on the local militias, more than a few of whom clearly have anti-American agendas. He and three others paid the price for their efforts.
Here's how Jeff Stein summed it up at his blog:
Republicans fell all over themselves in their rush to exploit the tragedy for partisan advantage – a sorry spectacle in a season full of them.
Their star witness was Army Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, the former head of the US military mission in Libya, who testified that the State Department had rejected his request for more security. I have no doubt he told the truth.
Heart rending – yes. Shocking? Not really, especially when some of the loudest critics of the tragic events in Benghazi where among those who had voted to cut the State Department’s budget again and again.
... So our diplomats and spies make do. And, not to make excuses, but the security officers, intelligence agents and analysts working out of US diplomatic outposts in places like Libya have their hands full trying to find out what the enemy is doing.
In the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya, moreover, do critics really think that the State Department and the CIA should have been sitting on their hands until they got spanking brand-new facilities built for them?
Foreign Policy ran a piece a few days ago examining the question "Is Iraq an Iranian proxy?" that was most interesting for one of its co-authors: Safa al-Sheikh, the acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
While Mr. Sheikh is frequently described as a technocrat, he has nevertheless advised Mr. Maliki on security policy for years now, at precisely the time that Iraq has strengthened its ties with Iran and distanced itself from the US (you may remember that Maliki kicked the US military out of Iraq last year). Iraq has uneasily supported Syria's Bashar al-Assad against the Sunni-dominated uprising against his regime. After all, a substantial chunk of the uprising is composed of Sunni jihadis hostile to Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.
So an opinion piece under his name about Iraq's relationship with Iran (co-authored with Emma Sky, a British national who worked in the occupation administration of Iraq and later as an adviser to the US military), is worth noting.
What does he have to say? That the Iraq war tipped the geopolitical scales in favor of Iran in the Middle East, that it provided a new inspiration to Sunni jihadi groups in the region, and that many politicians are in the pockets of foreign powers.
None of that's controversial to anyone who knows Iraq, but that last point, stated by a man in Sheikh's position, is interesting. Here's how he put it:
Iraqi politicians are gripped primarily by the desire to protect and expand their own power and resources. To do so, they often look for foreign patrons: It is no secret that many of Iraq's politicians take funding from neighboring countries, as well as from state coffers. Unsurprisingly, there is little willingness across the political spectrum to push forward a law in parliament that would reveal details of party financing. However, though Iraqis may be influenced by their "donors," this does not mean they are controlled by them.
Yes, the Iranians are the main financiers of some Iraqi political parties. The Saudis and other Sunni gulf monarchies, are patrons of Sunni groups opposed to Maliki. And a senior government adviser can admit the fact that members of parliament are effectively paid by foreign powers with little fallout. After all, it has become standard operating procedure.
As for the US and Iran? He points to both America's poor reputation amongst Iraqi Arabs, Sunni and Shiite alike (one thing they can agree on), and the perception that direct American involvement in the region is set to decline, leaving Iraq to manage relations with Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. He also points out that the US increasingly looks to be backing Sunni Islamist groups against Shiites regionally.
The United States faces many pressing questions that will deeply affect how it is viewed by Iraqi Shiites. For instance, will US support for the Syrian opposition bring a Salafi government to power? Will the United States remain silent in the face of Saudi and Bahraini oppression of their Shiite populations? Will the United States and Israel bomb Iran's nuclear program?
... Iraq finds itself walking a tight rope, caught between the United States and Iran – as well as in the proxy war playing out between Sunni and Shiite powers in the region. Iraq's government calculates that the United States needs it as an ally to keep oil flowing and to have it buy US weapons. But as US influence declines, Turkey and Iran are once more filling the power vacuum in the region. Iraqis have seen this movie before.
While in years past the Obama administration asserted that Pakistan had made progress in combating terrorism, thereby meeting aid conditions set by Congress, that apparently simply wasn't possible after recent events:
Osama bin Laden was killed in a Pakistani city crawling with Pakistani military intelligence last year. The US had to keep Pakistan in the dark on the raid, worried the country's military would warn Mr. bin Laden. This year, a Pakistani doctor who helped the US track and kill the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington was sentenced to 30 years in prison by Pakistan for his role. In the US, the drumbeat of furious US officers, complaining of Pakistani support for the Haqqani network and other militants shooting at US forces, has gotten louder. And then there was the little matter of Pakistan shutting off NATO supply lines into Afghanistan for seven months, ending in July.
So, faced with the prospect that the sprawling US aid effort to Pakistan would be curtailed, Clinton and Obama took executive action. They essentially said Pakistan should get its money, conditions or not.
The country has received over $15 billion in US military aid and $8 billion in economic aid in the past decade, with the Bush and Obama administrations arguing that US money is buying a more stable and democratic Pakistan – and one that is committed to ousting terrorists.
That of course, has not been the case. Last year, Pakistan was the third most terrorism-plagued country, after Afghanistan and Iraq. And most independent assessments measure few long-term gains thanks to US largesse. In fact, some say US money is part of the problem.
"International, particularly US, military and civilian aid has failed to improve Pakistan’s performance against jihadi groups operating on its soil or to help stabilize its nascent democracy," the International Crisis Group wrote in a June report on aid to Pakistan. "Lopsided focus on security aid after the 11 September 2001 attacks has not delivered counterterrorism dividends, but entrenched the military’s control over state institutions and policy, delaying reforms and aggravating Pakistani public perceptions that the U.S. is only interested in investing in a security client"
In a frenzied election season, particularly one in which Republicans have been eager to cut into Obama's national security advantage over challenger Mitt Romney, the news of the waiver has been almost completely ignored. The press took no notice until the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service dryly noted Clinton's action in a paper released on Oct. 4. Even then, there were only a few scattered reports.
Where are the Republicans?
The president's political opponents? They've been too busy blaming Obama for the sacking of the US consulate in Benghazi to make much noise about a country that harbored bin Laden for years and arms elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Besides, Republican presidents keep Pakistan's military and economic aid flowing just as reliably as Democratic ones do. Rest assured, if Romney wins the White House, whoever he appoints Secretary of State will keep their waiver-signing fingers limber, a pen close to hand.
Why is this so? Well, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And it's close to Afghanistan, where both Obama and Romney are promising to wind down the war in 2014. And there are lots of “bad people” in Pakistan. The thinking goes that the bad people would be in a much stronger position if the US tried to use its financial leverage to get the Pakistani government to withdraw its support for the bad people. So instead, the US passes a bunch of laws that threaten to cut off aid if certain conditions aren't met, but makes it crystal clear to Pakistan that money won't actually be cut off no matter what Pakistan does.
Plenty of serious people do argue that US aid conditions antagonize Pakistan more than they modify the country's behavior. And they may have a point. But that's an argument for getting rid of conditions, not keeping ones in place that aren't ever enforced, a credibility destroyer of the first order.
The last time US aid was cut to Pakistan was in 1990, because of the country's nuclear program (that brief pause in aid, of course, did not stop the construction and test-detonation of a Pakistani bomb).
Despite evidence to the contrary
The US government has fairly reliably "certified" Pakistan as being in compliance with conditions despite all evidence to the contrary. Here's how the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service analyzed the state of play:
In apparent conflict with US government reporting on Pakistan's progress in the areas of counterterrorism cooperation came a March 2011 certification by Secretary Clinton as required under section 203 of the EPPA. In the wake of subsequent revelations that Al Qaeda's founder was living in plain sight in a Pakistani city, and with top US military officials persistently complaining that Pakistan has failed to take action against the Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], this certification was met with deep skepticism and appeared to many observers to be driven primarily political considerations rather than realities on the ground. When asked about the certification during an October 2011 House hearing, Clinton insisted she had 'closely considered the requirements set forth in the statute' and 'determined that on balance Pakistan had met the legal threshold.
By mid-2012 however, conditions were such that a second certification under the EPPA appeared extremely difficult to justify. The November 2011 Salala border incident had spurred an angry Islamabad to close vital supply lines used by NATO forces in Afghanistan, and these remained closed for more than seven months until difficult negotiations finally resulted in their reopening in early July 2012 (in an apparent quid pro guo, Washington days later released nearly $1.2 billion in pending CSF payments). Despite this breakthrough, US-Pakistan relations remained uneasy and, with the fiscal year in its final quarter, the Administration faced having to make a decision on if and how to free planned FY2012 aid to Pakistan, given Congressional conditions.
The "EPPA" Is the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, a new approach to Pakistan that was trumpeted by Obama at the time of its passage. The essence of the bill, sometimes referred to as “Kerry-Lugar” after two of its sponsors, is that the US give a lot more aid to civil society groups, without conditions attached, and military aid to Islamabad – contingent on the government fighting terrorism.
Section 203 of the bill reads "for fiscal years 2011 through 2014, no security-related assistance may be provided to Pakistan in a fiscal year until the Secretary of State, under the direction of the president, makes the certification required."
What required certification? That Pakistan has made "sustained" and "significant" efforts in combating terrorist groups; that it has prevented Al Qaeda and the Taliban from operating on its territory; and that the "security forces of Pakistan are not materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan."
But this year, neither Clinton nor Obama could make such certifications. In essence, the waiver acknowledges that the US is subsidizing a foreign military that in turn provides aid for US enemies. It’s an uncomfortable truth that few in Washington seem to want to discuss.
If you believe Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the answer is the State Department. He complained in an interview with The Daily Beast yesterday that US guards were replaced with Libyan nationals in the months before the attack.
"The fully trained Americans who can deal with a volatile situation were reduced in the six months leading up to the attacks," he told the website. "When you combine that with the lack of commitment to fortifying the physical facilities, you see a pattern.”
Mr. Chaffetz has been among those leading the Republican effort to pin the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on the Obama administration. Earlier claims from Chaffetz and fellow Republican Congressman Darrell Issa that the administration ignored pleas for more security from Libya embassy officials should be treated with caution until there's some proof.
But it's certainly true that US embassy security is under strain around the world. Foreign nationals increasingly replace US citizens in everything from visa offices to security details. The new consulate in Benghazi, just over a year old, would have been particularly top-heavy with US nationals to start. Some reduction in US staffing was inevitable.
After I wrote a piece earlier this week about the political gain being sought from the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, a number of diplomatic acquaintances of mine emailed to say I should have looked at the State Department's security budget. Two of them had unprintable things to say about Congress.
Who can be blamed for that? Well, Chaffetz and Issa among others.
Since retaking control in 2010, House Republicans have aggressively cut spending at the State Department in general and embassy security in particular. Chaffetz and Issa and their colleagues voted to pay for far less security than the State Department requested in 2011 and again this year.
A bit rich
Is that responsible for the tragedy in Benghazi? Probably not, at least not entirely. Usually when security goes wrong, it's down to a cascade of small failures piling up. But it's a bit rich to complain about a lack of US security personnel at diplomatic missions on the one hand, while actively working to cut the budget to pay for US security personnel at diplomatic missions on the other.
It would have been Ambassador Stevens' call as to whether he made that visit from Tripoli, with advice from his regional security adviser. If they thought there was a high likelihood of an attack, they wouldn't have gone. They sadly got it wrong. A glaring intelligence failure? A cavalier attitude towards security? Or simply bad luck, in a dangerous country that the US is eager to see stabilized?
To be sure, the embassy security budget has been under the knife for years. “During both the latter years of the Bush presidency and throughout the Obama presidency, the administration has recommended boosting spending on foreign aid and [State Department] foreign operations, including security, and Congress has always cut it back,” Philip Crowley, a former State Department spokesman under President Obama, told the Washington Times in late September.
What's the gap between security budget requests from State and the actions of Congress?
Scott Lilly, who spent three decades as a senior staffer for Democrats in Congress, often working on budget matters, and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress in DC, says the cuts sought by Congress have been steep since the new House sat in 2011.
The Worldwide Security Protection program (WSP), which the government says provides "core funding for the protection of life, property, and information of the Department of State," and a separate embassy security and construction budget, which in part improves fortifications, have both been under fire.
"In 2011 they came in and passed a continuing resolution for the remainder of that fiscal year. The House proposed $70 million cut in the WSP and they proposed a $204 million cut in Embassy security," says Mr. Lilly. "Then the next year, fiscal 2012, they cut worldwide security by $145 million and embassy security by $376 million. This year's bill is the same thing all over again. The House has cut the worldwide security budget $149 million below the request."
Roughly 260 installations
That's not the actual budget – simply the negotiating position of Congress. The Senate and the President have sought more money than the House for embassy security, but the horse-trading means that the State Department ends up with less than it requested. For instance, in the fiscal 2012 budget, the cuts over the State Departments' request were "whittled back by the Senate," he says, to $109 million for WSP and $131 million for embassy security.
"We've got something like 260 embassies and consulates around the world, and there's a remarkable number of them that aren't anywhere close to Inman standards and are still particularly dangerous," says Lilly. "Inman standards" refers to the report written by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman on US building security abroad after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that left 241 US troops and 58 French soldiers dead.
Nearly 30 years later, many US missions abroad don't meet the code. Lilly recalls traveling to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on a congressional delegation years ago and finding the embassy, in a crumbling old Soviet party building, cramped and nowhere near a safe offset from the road to guard against attacks. "They had file cabinets on landings of stairways because they had so little room, the building was barely five feet off the road," he says. "It was so bad I got Bob Livingston, who was chairman of the appropriations committee at the time, to cancel an event and go look at it. He was so upset that he put an earmark in a bill to fix it."
I suggested to Lilly that if there weren't enough trained personnel for diplomatic protection in Libya, then maybe Stevens should have reined his operation in and done a lot less. Basically bow to the limitations.
He pushed back on that idea: "If the foreign service took that attitude, a hell of a lot less would get done. They know they're taking risks just by living in these places. They're pretty adventuresome and they've got to get out and do the job," he says. "Benghazi is a critical point in creating a stable environment in Libya, and Stevens knew he had to get out and work it."
To be sure, US missions abroad are much safer now than they were years ago, thanks to the Inman standards and a major overhaul of security measures after the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on three US embassies in Africa.
Adam Serwer at Mother Jones wrote earlier this week on embassy security in a piece that has a chart on attacks on US diplomats going back to 1970. It shows that annual attacks have declined sharply since over 30 in 1991.
The murder of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three Americans in Benghazi, Libya three weeks ago was a tragedy. Serious questions have to be asked – indeed, are being asked – about the local security failures that led to their deaths and what to do next.
Why was a lightly guarded US Ambassador in a semi-lawless Libyan city filled with militias, both pro- and anti-American ones? And on the anniversary of Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington? Should threats, albeit vague and non-specific ones, have been taken more seriously by Ambassador Stevens and the diplomatic security team around him? What's the best way to identify and dismantle the group responsible for the murders? And, most importantly, what are the benefits of having diplomats that take some risks versus the costs of having a fearful diplomatic corps living in bunkers?
But are these the questions being asked by America's political classes? No. Instead we have an ever increasing drumbeat of partisan attacks entirely focused on attacking President Barack Obama as the race for the White House against Mitt Romney enters its closing stages.
The entire aftermath of the event has been played for cheap political gain, with little real focus on the big picture. And that's a minor tragedy in its own right.
Jimmy Carterizing Obama
For weeks, the Republicans have been seeking to create a useful election "narrative." They're trying to hold President Obama personally responsible for the deaths and to "Jimmy Carterize" him in the eyes of the electorate for: 1. Failing to personally oversee security arrangements at the State Department's roughly 270 embassies and consulates; 2. The contradictory statements and flip-flopping that poured out of senior officials in the first week after the attack.
Point 1 is patently absurd, and has been fed entirely by political partisans or their media surrogates. Whatever mistakes were made that allowed the coordinated attack on the Benghazi consulate to take place, they don't rise to the rank of the president. It's a level of detail presidents don't handle and couldn't if they wanted to. If you believe that Obama is responsible for a failure to personally put together a series of vague threats and non-specific warnings into concrete knowledge that an attack was planned for Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, then you should also believe that President George W. Bush was personally responsible for the intelligence failures that led to the murder of 2,977 people in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
Neither case is fair.
Point 2, however, has some legs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama and others made strong, non-specific statements in the first day or so after the attack that tracked what any informed observer believed: That the involved a level of complexity that required some advanced planning from a reasonably well-organized group. Before facts were in, it was reasonable to believe it might have been simply mob violence whipped up by an anti-Islam YouTube video, which did indeed spawn a small crowd of protesters outside the consulate. But not after details emerged – if anything the protesters provided an opportunistic form of cover for the attackers, which also were set up on a US safe-house on the outskirts of town.
But then on Sept. 16, the message from a White House that's usually pretty good at controlling the message changed abruptly. UN Ambassador Susan Rice started saying things like "we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or planned" and implying that the event was a spontaneous attack. State Department spokesmen declined to characterize the attack as "terrorism."
This story eventually changed to one that much better fits the available information. Why the strange turnaround? It seems quite likely that the administration feared admitting an attack of terrorism against the US ambassador to Libya, a country whose uprising Obama had championed, would be political damaging. Just like the Republicans, there's been an element of spin here.
But team Obama within a week got on song with the facts, and is moving forward. End of story? Hardly. First there's been a campaign to undermine Ambassador Rice from the right that's been at times comic in its messengers.
For instance on Monday night, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raced into the lead of the chutzpah stakes. Lobbed a question from Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on whether Rice should resign because her early comments on the consulate attack emphasized the importance of the anti-Islam YouTube video, Rumsfeld said: "I thought it was amazing that someone in her position would go on with that degree of certainty, that fast, and that authoritatively, and be that wrong" and that "her presentation was demonstrated to be inaccurate within a matter of hours, which has got to be embarrassing."
Mr. Rumsfeld, of course, has never expressed a shred of remorse or embarrassment for insisting that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that the US invasion of Iraq would be a glorious achievement that would enhance America's standing in the world. The war in Iraq cost the US $4 trillion and 4,480 soldiers. The cost of the tragedy in Benghazi will be well south of that.
On Tuesday, former Vice President Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Hannity's radio program that "Benghazi demonstrates that [the Obama Administration doesn't] have a handle on foreign policy and national security matters" and that the Libya investigation "is going to get messier and messier, and in fact, it looks like the administration’s been involved in a cover-up claiming that it was all caused by this YouTube video when in fact it was clearly the result of the developments with respect to Al Qaeda and terrorism in North Africa.... they refuse to recognize the situation we are in, and that's the first step towards ultimate failure and ultimately, future terrorist attacks."
Vice President Cheney was a leading figure in the aftermath of the original 9/11 attack arguing that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved and urging war on his regime in Iraq.
Ahead of tonight's debate between Obama and Romney, the Republican effort to make the attack in Benghazi an act of criminal negligence on the part of the administration has heated up. Leading the charge have been Republican congressmen Darrell Issa of California and Jason Chaffetz of Utah from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who released a letter they sent to Ms. Clinton on Tuesday charging that "Washington" denied extra security requested by people working with the US government in Libya.
"Multiple US Federal government officials have confirmed to the Committee that, prior to the Sept. 11 attack, the US mission made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi," the pair wrote. "The mission in Libya, however, was denied these resources by official Washington."
This is a stunning charge, and no evidence for it is given. I find it very, very hard to believe that the State Department would have denied repeated requests for extra security in Benghazi, a city where security incidents involving foreigners have been on the rise in the past year. Since the Al Qaeda attacks on three US embassies in Africa in 1998, diplomatic protection has been a top priority and US embassies have been turned into fortresses. While incompetence is always possible, the way Mr. Issa and Mr. Chaffetz have framed their letter it sounds as if the State Department told its people in the field to jump in a lake when they said they feared for their lives.
A Facebook threat
Some of what they write to bolster their case that the events in Benghazi could have been headed off seems rather strained. For instance they write:
"Ambassador Stevens was in the habit of taking early morning runs around Tripoli along with members of his security detail. According to sources, sometime in June 2012, a posting on a pro-Gaddafi Facebook page trumpeted these runs and directed a threat against Ambassador Stevens along with a stock photo of him. It is reported that after stopping these morning runs for about a week, the Ambassador resumed them."
Stevens was probably killed by an Islamist group empowered by the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi. And he was killed in Benghazi, a very long way indeed from Tripoli. Was it imprudent of him to resume running after pausing to assess the threat posed by a Facebook posting? It's hard to say. Is the implication from the congressmen that the experienced Arabic speaker, whose strength as a diplomat was building local relationships, should have stayed confined to embassy grounds because threats (which are always made) were made? Perhaps.
As I said, it's very hard to believe a diplomatic mission's urgent requests for tighter security were ignored up the chain of command. But if evidence is provided for their assertions, that could prove damaging indeed. Another Fox News story out this morning seeks to bolster this case. The network says it obtained letters that "show the State Department refused to get involved when the company tasked with protecting the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, raised security concerns."
The only quotes used from the letters in the Fox story are from one dating to July 10. Fox quotes the letter, written by State Department contracting officer Jan Visintainer as saying "The government is not required to mediate any disagreements between the two parties of the Blue Mountain Libya partnership" and that up until that point the "contract performance is satisfactory." Blue Mountain is a security contractor to the State Department in Libya with a Libyan and UK branch. According to unnamed people that Fox spoke to, the Libyan side of the partnership was worried that security was seriously inadequate. If the State Department was brushing off security concerns, that is both tragic and scandalous. But nothing quoted from the letters amounts to proving that in the Fox story. Perhaps more will be forthcoming.
Whatever new revelations are brought forth, political hay will be made, and the punditocracy will thunder down the TV about the greatest scandal of all time, before they move on to the next thing after the election, no matter who wins.
All this will continue to obscure the meaningful debate over how best to do diplomatic outreach in dangerous corners of the world, how to balance security and access, and what if any risks are acceptable.
Old friend Arian Ardie pointed out on Facebook that an angry, mostly-Muslim crowd also protested in Jakarta a year ago today. That protest got far less media attention than the one spearheaded by the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders Front) at the embassy on Monday. (I wrote a little bit about the FPI earlier this year). The same number of protesters, more or less, were involved in both, which both started at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, not far from the US embassy.
Given recent events I thought the Sept. 18, 2011 protest deserves a little more attention:
What riled those folks up? Jakarta governor Fauzi Bowo said after two horrific gang rapes in the city that women wearing "provocative" clothing were partly responsible for the crimes. He soon apologized.
To be sure, the Islamist protest against the US, over a video clip put on YouTube by an anti-Islam activist, was far more raucous and potentially violent (I've put some footage of the protest -- teargas! shouting! great TV! -- below for comparison). And it certainly should have been reported in the context of a wave of protests across the globe prompted by the insulting YouTube video. But have a look at both protests, and remember that the "Muslim world" monolith is a fiction.
You are forgiven if you hold the mistaken belief that the entire Muslim world is aflame with anti-American "rage." Cable news has been pumping the message for days now, and Newsweek has jumped on the bandwagon with a cover that perfects the approach to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims as a violent, reactive mob.
"Muslim Rage," screams the banner headline for an article written by anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsan Ali, over a picture of two men (one helpfully wearing a turban) looking rageful. "How I survived it, How we can end it," goes the subhead.
I'll return later to the policy dangers of viewing the world's Muslim inhabitants as an undifferentiated mass that can be "solved."
But it's time for some perspective. The protests in more than 20 Muslim countries, over a deliberately insulting YouTube video, have been small. Small as a proportion of the world's Muslims, and small when compared to other Muslim "insult" protests in the past. And almost certainly small, when their impact is considered a few months from now.
As the #muslimrage Twitter hashtag (killing Newsweek with comedy) has pointed out all day, most Muslims aren't raging at the US or anything else. Some are raging at rude taxi drivers. Others are kind of nervous about problems at work. And still others are thinking about maybe having a sandwich.
While sensational headlines have played up the story, the cumulative total of protesters so far in about 30 countries appears well under 100,000. At Tahrir Square on Friday, wide angle overhead shots (rather than the tight, ground shots favored by TV news producers) showed a sparse group reminiscent of Mubarak-era political protests (when people ran a major risk of going to jail for simply shouting slogans) and not the hundreds of thousands that have routinely come out to protest against their own government in the past year-and-a-half.
And if you expect the occasional mass freakout like this, as I do, there's actually a small sign of progress in these protests. The protests over the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad in 2006 were larger and more violent, and there was far less in the way of condemnations of the violence and apologies from Muslim-majority states than there have been this go around.
Ashraf Khalil, whose judgment I trust, estimated about 1,000 protesters at Tahrir on Friday, with a further 300 football hooligans picking a fight with riot police nearby. That's in a city of 15 million people, at least 90 percent of them Muslim. In Jakarta, Indonesia, a few hundred protesters clashed with police (who outnumbered them by 3 or 4 to 1) near the US embassy. Jakarta is, like Cairo, another sprawling Muslim majority city.
I've seen big protests in both – the popular uprising that ended the US-backed dictator Soeharto's reign in 1998, and the popular uprising that ended the US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak's reign in 2011 – and by those standards these were not protests at all.
This doesn't mean that there's no story here or events aren't worth paying attention to. It's just that there's nothing new to learn about the "Muslim world" in all this. Yes, it's true that many Muslims are intolerant of perceived insults against their religion. Yes, a lot of Muslims don't much like the US. If you think that's news, try getting out more.
What we can learn is about the specifics of each country, from both how events unfolded and how government's responded. Consider Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues were murdered in the second-largest city, Benghazi. It was a terrible tragedy that says something about post-Qaddafi Libya, but little about anywhere else. The Americans were killed by one of the dozens of militias that continue to roam the country, particularly in Benghazi. The particular militia is almost certainly one of the anti-American jihadi outfits operating there.
In Egypt, we learned something about new President Mohamed Morsi, who was propelled to the presidency earlier this year by the Muslim Brotherhood. Security was nonexistent when a crowd of maybe 2,000 protesters descended on the US embassy and managed to scale the wall and destroy the US flag flying there. Most of the protesters breaching the embassy walls, and the violent group at Friday's protest, were football hooligans, mostly out for a fight with the cops, not Islamist ideologues.
Still, in the first day after that incident, Mr. Morsi was largely silent on the embassy breach, and far more interested in complaining about the insult to Islam. But he changed his tune after furious private complaints from the US and a pointed comment made by President Obama that Egypt is not a US "ally." Is the fact that the democratically elected president of Egypt isn't a particular fan of free speech or of the US positive? Of course not. But does the fact that he changed his tune and eventually did the right thing (security was much better for Friday's protest) tell us that a way to work with the new Egyptian government can still be found? Of course.
Then there's Lebanon, where Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah emerged to join some of the most raucous anti-American protests in the world. Though Mr. Nasrallah's America-hating credentials hardly need any burnishing, his regional popularity has been on the wane, since he's seen as a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria, where the civil war has claimed at least 30,000 lives so far. The hypocrisy of protesting a 14-minute YouTube clip while staying silent about a Syrian leader who's had thousands killed was noted by many.
As I finished this post, I came across an interview with an actress who appears in some of the footage given to Gawker. It goes a long way to clearing up some of the mystery, though not entirely.
Cindy Lee Garcia tells the website that she was hired last summer for a small part in a movie she was told would be called "Desert Warriors," about life in Egypt 2,000 years ago (Islam is about 1,400 years old).
She told Gawker "It wasn't based on anything to do with religion, it was just on how things were run in Egypt. There wasn't anything about Muhammed or Muslims or anything and that, according to Gawker, "In the script and during the shooting, nothing indicated the controversial nature of the final product. Muhammed wasn't even called Muhammed; he was "Master George," Garcia said. The words Muhammed were dubbed over in post-production, as were essentially all other offensive references to Islam and Muhammed. Garcia said that there was a man who identified as "Bacile" on set, but that he was Egyptian and frequently spoke Arabic.
The online 14-minute clip of a purportedly anti-Islamic movie that sparked protests at the US embassy in Cairo and and the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya is now looking like it could have been ginned up by someone sitting a basement with cheap dubbing software.
Full credit goes to Sarah Abdurrahman at On the Media and Rosie Grey at Buzzfed who appear to be the first to highlight (there may be others, but they're the ones who caught my eye) the fact that almost every instance of language referring to Islam or Muhammad in the film has been dubbed in. That is, mouths are mouthing but the words you're hearing don't match.
There have already been a bunch of lies associated with the alleged film. A man named "Sam Bacile" was identified as being the writer and producer. He claimed to be an Israeli citizen. The Israelis say they have no record of him. He claimed to have spent $5 million on the movie. The clip online doesn't look like even $100,000 was spent. There is no record of a "Sam Bacile" living in California, and his strange insistence on the fact that he was Jewish and that he had exclusively Jewish funders for his film in an interview with the Associated Press now looks like something of a red flag.
The one verifiable person involved in this strange tale so far is Steve Klein, an evangelical Christian and anti-Islamic activist with ties to militia groups and a Coptic Christian satellite TV station based in California. Klein told Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic earlier today that he was a consultant on the film, that "Sam Bacile," was a pseudonym, that the person behind the name probably isn't Jewish, and he didn't know the real name of the man. He doesn't know the name of someone he worked on a movie with? Yet another strange, credulity-stretching claim.
Now comes the part with the compelling case of no movie at all.
If you watch closely, you can see that when the actors are reading parts of the script that do not contain Islam-specific language, the audio from the sound stage is used (the audio that was recorded as the actors were simultaneously being filmed). But anytime the actors are referring to something specific to the religion (the Prophet Muhammed, the Quran, etc.) the audio recorded during filming is replaced with a poorly executed post-production dub. And if you look EVEN closer, you can see that the actors’ mouths are saying something other than what the dub is saying.
For example, at 2:53, the voiceover says “His name is Muhammed. And we can call him The Father Unknown.” In this case, the whole line is dubbed, and it appears the actor is actually saying, “His name is George (?). And we can call him The Father Unknown.” I assume the filmmakers thought they were being slick, thinking that dubbing the whole line instead of just the name would make it more seamless and less noticeable to the viewer. But once you start to look for these dubs, it’s hard to see anything else.
And Grey writes:
As the video above — cut from the YouTube video tied to a global controversy — shows, nearly all of the names in the movie's "trailer" — is a compilation of the most clumsily overdubbed moments from what is in reality an incoherent, haphazardly-edited set of scenes. Among the overdubbed words is "Mohammed," suggesting that the footage was taken from a film about something else entirely. The footage also suggests multiple video sources — there are obvious and jarring discrepancies among actors and locations... whoever made (it) may well have made use of little more than the standard editing software Final Cut Pro — far from a cast and crew of over 100 and millions of dollars.
Both make very, very convincing points (read their full posts) and if you watch the footage carefully, it's hard to escape their conclusions. In one scene a man is apparently teaching his daughter about the evils of Islam and writes on a blackboard that "Man + X = BT" as he explains to her that "Man + X = Islamic terrorist." Then he writes the equation in reverse, again intoning "Islamic terrorist" as he writes "BT."
If suspicions are right, the low-quality footage has been re-purposed from somewhere, and you'd expect someone to come forward and explain soon (since a lot of actors are involved).
What's really going on here? I have no idea.
The people responsible for the murder of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans yesterday are those who attacked them. The serious security breach at the Cairo embassy, in which a crowd was allowed to climb the fence of the ordinarily heavily guarded compound and take down the US flag, is likewise the fault of those people first, and the Egyptian government second.
And what led to the mobilization of crowds against the US embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi was the decision of an Islamist TV station to draw attention to a hate-filled anti-Islamic film, with it's own spin that it was a "US" production, implying the US government had something to do with it.
Without that, the year-old movie, would have remained in obscurity.
But the existence of the film is the precipitating event. A 14-minute clip from the film online, which presents the prophet Muhammad as a lascivious simpleton who condoned child-rape, will never go down as later-day "Birth of a Nation" when it comes to propaganda films. The shooting, acting, and dialogue literally drew chuckles from me and could be used to teach a film class what not to do. Many of its claims and assertions about the founding of Islam and the contents of the Koran are manifestly false.
Who made it? The Associated Press spoke to a man who identified himself as "Sam Bacile," who told their reporter that he's Jewish, Israeli, and real estate developer residing in California. The man claimed he'd raised $5 million from "100 Jewish donors" to make the film, that it was filmed in the summer of last year, and that it's been shown once in a mostly-empty theater in Hollywood.
Neither I nor anyone else can find any records of a "Sam Bacile" in California, and it looks highly likely that it's a pseudonym. Israeli officials say they have no records of a citizen of that name. (I wrote a piece earlier today in which I credulously accepted the identity as provided by the AP, and for that I apologize.) I can't see how someone prominent enough in the Jewish community to raise $5 million from exclusively Jewish donors could have no online footprint at all. I very much doubt there is such a person.
Some details of one of the people behind the film can be confirmed. The AP also spoke to a man named Steve Klein, who told them he'd acted as a consultant for the film. A little online sleuthing turned up a "Steven A. Klein," who's involved with a group called "Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment," which appears mostly focused on criticizing Islam, which the group says is a fundamental threat to the US Constitution and way of life.
For instance, in July 2011, Mr. Klein was the only signatory on a letter from the group that said it would hold a "First Amendment educational outreach" in front of the Los Angeles County Administration Building. The letter is largely focused on opposition to Islamic law and its threat to the US, and also argues that the First Amendment should allow regulation of religion when it comes to Islam.
The letter is hosted at The Way TV (atvsat.com), a Los Angeles-based satellite television channel devoted to Christian evangelical outreach in the Middle East. A perusal of its website indicates that most of its founders are Coptic Christians, and that it takes a particular interest in Egyptian affairs.
Klein works with Joseph Nasralla, a Coptic-American activist who was involved in the campaign against building the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in Manhattan and, like Klein, views Islam as a threat to the US. Mr. Nasralla is a founder of The Way TV, which hosts Klein's television show, according to anti-Islam activist Robert Spencer.
A call to the station in California was answered by a woman speaking Egyptian Arabic, who said she's originally from Alexandria. She said that Steve Klein hosts a program on the station called "Wake up America," and that he was indeed the man who worked on the film that sparked yesterday's events. She promised to pass on my number to him. Mr. Klein has not called back, though to be fair I left my message just an hour ago. She also said the station had received an email I'd sent to email@example.com, an email address Klein offered as the best way to reach him in the comments of a story about an anti-Islam protest his group had organized at Murrieta Valley High School in California.
"Western civilization is absolutely superior to Islam, period," he says in his latest broadcast, in which he says he served as a Marine in Vietnam and that his son has served as a Marine in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When a caller from Egypt to the broadcast says Islam and Muhammad are the "anti-Christ" and that all Muslims are "child-molesters," Klein agrees, and chuckles at the notion that any Muslims might be "good people... "
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks what it terms hate groups, wrote about Klein earlier this year, alleging he's been involved in training a far-right militia in California.
"In a 22-acre compound at the southern edge of Sequoia National Park in California, a secretive cohort of militant Christian fundamentalists is preparing for war. One of the men helping train the flock in the art of combat, a former Marine named Steve Klein, believes that California is riddled with Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cells 'who are awaiting the trigger date and will begin randomly killing as many of us as they can,'" the SLPC writes. It continues: "Over the past year, Johnson and the church militia have developed a relationship with Steve Klein, a longtime religious-right activist who brags about having led a “hunter killer” team as a Marine in Vietnam. Klein ... is allied with Christian activist groups across California."
The SLPC also writes that Klein "has been active in extremist movements for decades," that he founded a group in 1977 that "conducts 'respectful confrontations' outside of abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques" and that he has ties to the Minutemen militia movement.
The murder of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens yesterday as an unopposed crowd ransacked and torched the consulate in Benghazi, along with a raucous protest at the US embassy in Cairo, are events that are going to reverberate for months to come. That the violence came on the anniversary of the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington was not a coincidence.
Mr. Stevens was killed along with three other Americans in Libya's second-largest city, in protests that used as their pretext a hitherto unknown amateur film designed to insult the prophet Muhammad. Stevens was the first US ambassador murdered in the line of duty since Ambassador Adolph Dubs was assassinated in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979. Early unconfirmed reports from Benghazi indicated the other dead Americans were Marines assigned to diplomatic security.
The ginned-up controversy over the film, which was propelled to violence by a rabble-rousing Egyptian television channel that presented the film as the work of the US government, recalls the protests over cartoons depicting Muhammad published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005.
Then, there were violent protests across the Middle East over the exercise of free speech in a Western nation. In some ways, it was the beginning of an era of manufactured outrage, with a group of fringe hate-mongers in the West developing a symbiotic relationship with radical clerics across the East. The Westerners deliberately cause offense by describing Islam as a fundamentally violent religion, and all too often mobs in Muslim-majority states oblige by engaging in violence.
Terry Jones, a fringe evangelical Florida preacher, has been one of the instigators on the US end. In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he basked in the publicity of a planned Quran-burning and the threats and violence that ensued. Mr. Jones is involved in the latest manufactured controversy as well, since in the past week he's drawn attention to the deliberately insulting film, financed by a self-described Jewish-Israeli real estate developer Sam Bacile living in California.
Jones and Mr. Bacile cannot be blamed for the violence and death of the ambassador. That blame goes to the perpetrators. Who whipped them up? Ground zero for bringing attention to the movie in Egypt appears to be Al-Nas TV, a religious channel owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Mansour bin Kadsa. A TV show presented by anti-Christian, anti-Semitic host Khaled Abdullah before the violence showed what he said were clips from the film, which he insisted was being produced by the United States and Coptic (Egyptian) Christians.
The clip, dubbed from the US film into Arabic, was certainly inflammatory. It shows Muhammad as a grinning fool, talking to a donkey and dubbing it "the first Muslim animal." Max Fisher found a 14-minute video of the movie in English that is even worse, one badly acted anti-Islamic caricature after another, with all Muslims portrayed as cartoonishly violent and depraved child rapists, and a running "joke" that constantly calls Muhammad "the bastard of the unknown father." The frankly disgusting clip is included below.
But the filmmakers are among the least responsible for the chain reaction that followed. More responsible is Al-Nas, which turned it into an anti-Christian propaganda exercise of its own. Then there are national leaders. The US embassy in Cairo is nestled in the usually heavily-guarded Cairo neighborhood of Garden City, with security checkpoints in a half-mile perimeter before you can reach the embassy walls. Yet a group of protesters were not only allowed in, but allowed to scale the wall of the US embassy, stealing the US flag flying there and ripping it to shreds after replacing it with an Islamic flag. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, now Egypt's president, has so far been silent on the total security failure at the embassy.
Events in Benghazi may be more forgivable from a security standpoint, given the turmoil of post-Qaddafi Libya and the general incompetence of the country's emerging security institutions. But video of the assault on the consulate there shows no signs of any security effort at all, and the results were pure tragedy.
That the US ambassador was murdered on a visit to Benghazi is part of a sad irony that will probably be played up in the US presidential race in the days ahead. The city was the center of the uprising against Qaddafi, and was saved from being overrun by Qaddafi's forces in March 2011 by US, French, UK, and other Western countries that pounded his armored column from the air. I was in Benghazi on the night the UN Security Council authorized force against Qaddafi, and witnessed the first cheering crowds I'd ever seen in the Middle East waving American flags.
But many Libyans are not just devout in their faith, but jingoistic in their approach, and eastern Libya has seen its share of religious violence. In February 2006, a mob attacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi after an Italian far-right politician wore a t-shirt with one of the Muhammad cartoons and burned it to the ground. Events in Benghazi are a reminder that gratitude in international politics is a short-lived phenomenon that decisions should never be based on.
Libyan deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif told a press conference in Tripoli that Qaddafi loyalists were responsible for the attack, which involved a well-armed militia, though he admitted to government security failings. Is he right? There are plenty of armed Islamist groups in the area who fought against Qaddafi who could have carried out the attack, and the 2006 attack on the Italian consulate developed into a general anti-Qaddafi protest, with many of the figures involved in the uprising against Qaddafi in 2011 present at the 2006 attack.
So far, there is no broader violence. But that could change.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, a man whose power is entirely owed to the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO allies to install him and by the blood of the thousands of US, UK ,and other foreign nationals who have defended his government, wanted to make sure that Afghans were aware of the movie. His government issued a statement calling the film "inhuman and abusive." Could there be attacks on US troops or foreign staff over this in Afghanistan? That's sadly possible.
On April 2011, roughly 20 United Nations staffers were killed in the northern Afghan city of Mazir-e-Sharif after a compound was overrun by Afghans angry at Jones's first publicized Quran burning. In February and March of this year, six US soldiers were killed by Afghan soldiers and police in the aftermath of US soldiers dumping Qurans into a burn pit at Baghram airbase.