Rick Wilking/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton comments on the just-released Benghazi report as she speaks at Galvanize, a learning community for technology, in Denver Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton and Benghazi look very different through lens of history

The fallout from Benghazi shows what hasn’t – and has – changed about the way Washington handles foreign policy crises. 

The House Select Committee report on the United States embassy attack was as blunt as a poke in the chest. Diplomatic officials paid insufficient attention to warnings of possible danger, lawmakers concluded. The result: tragedy.

“There is no logical explanation for the lack of effective security” at the embassy, according to the report.

Benghazi, 2012? No. Beirut, 1984.

Earlier this week, the Republicans of the House Select Committee on Benghazi issued their final report on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed a US ambassador and three other Americans. The panel didn’t directly charge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with wrongdoing. It did broadly rebuke US officials for misjudging the risk of sending diplomats to Benghazi – and then failing to protect them when things went wrong.

But Benghazi is far from the only calamity to strike US diplomatic installations in recent decades. In the early 1980s US outposts in Lebanon suffered a series of devastating blows from Islamist groups, for instance. In April 1983, a suicide bomber blew up the embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. Six months later, another truck bomb destroyed a US Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 241. In September 1984, a third vehicle exploded near the relocated US embassy in East Beirut, causing two more American fatalities.

How did Congress and top US officials react in those instances? The comparison may show what hasn’t – and has – changed about the way Washington handles crises. The bottom line: Foresight of events isn’t much better. Political retribution might be more intense.

“Almost from the beginning, [the Benghazi probe] had a very political cast to it that some of the other tragedies didn’t have,” says Thomas Henricksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who specializes in foreign policy and international political affairs.

The Beirut tragedies of 1983 and 1984 were in many ways a foreshadowing of a the terrorist tactics of Islamist groups that have come to define decades of asymmetrical struggle between them, the US, and their other Western and pro-Western enemies.

All three of the bombings were carried out by elements of a group known today as Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Islamist group based in Lebanon and associated with Iran. The US was present in Lebanon in force due to its participation in a multinational force pledged to try and establish peace in Lebanon’s burgeoning civil war.

How Congress reacted to Beirut

In Washington, the primary reaction to the first embassy bombing and the destruction of the Marine barracks was overwhelming grief and shock. In their wake, then-Secretary of State George Shultz named an Advisory Panel on Overseas Security. It issued a far-reaching report, nicknamed the “Inman Report” after the group’s chairman retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, which recommended a series of improvements to embassy protection. It established the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Diplomatic Security Service within the State Department.

Following the second bombing at the relocated Embassy site, both the GOP-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House weighed in with studies of the situation. The House report was more pointed, perhaps due to the obvious fact that Republican Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office.

But this study – the one quoted at the top of this story – was much less personal than the recent Benghazi report. Secretary Shultz was not subpoenaed to testify. It identified what lawmakers concluded as systemic failures, not individuals. It noted, for instance, that given the situation in Lebanon, the prospect of further bomb attacks was “so unambiguous that there is no logical explanation for the lack of effective security” at the embassy.

The study was issued only weeks prior to the 1984 presidential election. News reports on the study barely mentioned Shultz. Some noted that Democratic candidate Walter Mondale had criticized President Reagan and his administration at large for not providing better embassy security.

“But I don’t know of even any remote suggestion that Shultz was negligent,” says Geoffrey Kemp, senior director of regional security programs at the Center for the National Interest.

Partly that was due to the person. Shultz had been a prominent Republican figure for years by then, serving as secretary of Labor, secretary of the Treasury, and director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was well known and well respected on both sides of the political aisle.

Partly that was due to the times. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was sharply critical of what he felt to be a misbegotten US involvement in Lebanon, but he was also a politician of the old school who believed in working with the other party. He and Reagan got along well.

Partly that was due to politics. Reagan was cruising toward reelection and Mr. Mondale knew there was little to be gained from attacking the Gipper on security, generally a GOP strength.

How 2016 is different

Fast-forward to 2016. Partisanship dominates Washington in a way it didn’t in the 1980s. And a former secretary of State is running for president.

Perhaps Shultz would not have gotten off so easy if top Democrats had thought he had presidential ambitions. But Mrs. Clinton is running for the White House, and that inevitably means the Benghazi report is suffused with political meaning and importance.

Her critics say that’s justified. They say the administration focused early on a false narrative about the Benghazi attacks – that they’d been sparked by an anti-Muslim video produced by an American pastor. They claim that Clinton has shown little interest in revisiting the causes of the Benghazi crisis.

“I think Congress has been very aggressive in cases like this, but the issue is never before have I seen a secretary of State so indifferent, nor have we seen as concerted a campaign to put out a false narrative, and I think that is actually the root of the problem with Benghazi,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

In similar past incidents officials have been fired, points out Ms. Pletka. Benghazi? Nobody.

“I think Mrs. Clinton has gotten off easy,” Pletka says.

Clinton and Libya

But much of the criticism about Clinton’s Benghazi actions centers on what she did, or didn’t do in the wake of the attacks and the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and others. Could, or should, she have prevented them? The Republican House Select Committee on Benghazi’s new report, for its part, notes that no US military rescue forces could have reached the besieged Benghazi installation in time. In other words, US diplomats were out beyond the perimeter of their security coverage.

On one hand, those problems are beyond the scope of a secretary of State to address.

Avoiding such situations was one of the lessons learned mentioned in 1980s security reports on the Lebanon bombings. In Libya, as in Beirut, the US enmeshed itself in a situation that it did not entirely understand, and that escalated in a manner unforeseen.

On the other, Clinton was a leading voice in the Obama Cabinet in favor of intervention. 

“Benghazi was an outgrowth of a woefully miscalculated Libya war, where we had no ground forces, where we were drawn in by the French and the British, and ... things just went south from that point onwards,” says Geoffrey Kemp of the Center for the National Interest.

In that, the Libya experience may be of a piece with many recent US overseas adventures. Former Secretary of State and noted foreign policy realist Henry Kissinger argues that the last five wars involving American troops have failed to achieve US aims.

The Korean War ended in a stalemate that strategically benefited China, according to Kissinger. The US essentially withdrew from the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Speaking in 2014 under the auspices of the Kennedy School’s Future of Diplomacy Project, he said: “I would say it as a general proposition ... we should not enter wars whose end we cannot ascribe and for which we have no defined strategy.”

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