Getting in on the Benghazi blame game

Here's a list of where you should really be looking if you enjoy finger-pointing.

Mohammad Hannon/AP/File
In this September photo, Libyan military guards check one of the burned-out buildings at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

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?

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