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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.
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.
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.