Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Forget the gossip: Focus on Benghazi

U.S. President Obama watches as the body of an American killed in Benghazi is placed in a hearse during a return of remains ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. Image Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

U.S. President Obama watches as the body of an American killed in Benghazi is placed in a hearse during a return of remains ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. Image Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

Members of Congress of both parties are clamoring for former CIA Director David Petraeus to testify about the decisions and events surrounding the murder of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of this year.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask for that testimony since the CIA had an important role in Benghazi and Petraeus – to his credit – is the highest level US official to visit Libya since the disaster there.

But fascination with the general’s personal story must not divert attention from the very significant policy failures that helped produce a chaotic security situation in Libya. Petraeus was not principally responsible for those mistakes, nor for similar mistakes that continue in Syria, nor for the misleading suggestion that killing Bin Laden had dealt a fatal blow to Al Qaeda.

Congress should stay focused on the policy mistakes leading up to the Benghazi attack, the question of the commander-in-chief’s role the night of the attack, and the misleading claims afterwards that this terrorist attack was a response to an anti-Muslim video. In chronological order:

  1. Why did the US leave the principal responsibility for arming the anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya to countries which favored Islamist militias, so that many of the most powerful armed groups in Libya today are Islamist – and even Salafist – despite the fact that the Libyan people emphatically rejected the Islamists in the recent elections? Was this the result of the hasty and ill-conceived UN Security Council Resolution that imposed an arms embargo on all parties in Libya? Or was it a deliberate policy of “leading from behind” and outsourcing critical tasks to countries who did not share our interest in a democratic and pluralistic Libya? These are questions that fall principally within the responsibility of the secretary of State, not the director of the CIA.
  2. Why did the US continue with that policy failure after Qaddafi’s fall, taking a “mission accomplished” stance and leaving a democratically-elected and pro-American government largely powerless in the face of armed militias? Again, this was principally a State Department responsibility, but the Department of Defense should have pressed for a more active role as well.
  3. Why was security at both the Tripoli Embassy and the Benghazi Consulate so woefully inadequate, despite appeals from the country team for better security and plain evidence of danger, including attacks on diplomats? That too was principally a State Department responsibility, although the CIA did have a major presence in Benghazi (and had a rescue force that managed to come from Tripoli that night and rescue most of the Americans).
  4. Why did administration officials, including the president himself, mislead the American people for so long with the suggestion that the attacks were a response to an obscure video rather than a deliberate act of terrorism? Was this because of a reluctance to acknowledge that Al Qaeda was still alive even though Bin Laden was dead? Did the intelligence really support the claim that this was a “spontaneous demonstration,” and why would State Department officials rely on claims that contradicted what they knew from monitoring the attack on the Consulate as it was happening? (It is appropriate to question Petraeus about the intelligence community assessment, but nothing prevented the State Department from honestly reporting what they knew from their own sources.)
  5. Given the obvious lack of security in Libya and the danger to American personnel, why was nothing done to assign forces to AFRICOM so that the US could have responded more quickly to the attacks on our installations in both Benghazi and Tripoli? This failure rests largely with the Department of Defense, which could have made such provision on its own, but it is also a failure of the National Security Council decision-making process.
  6. Because AFRICOM had no assigned forces, it appears that the only military assets available nearby were F-16 fighters based in Italy. These aircraft might have had difficulty avoiding significant civilian casualties in a residential area or distinguishing between enemy and friendly militias. Still, shouldn’t the F-16’s at least have been deployed to Benghazi, to provide cover over the Annex and over the evacuation route, whether or not their weapons could actually be employed? It seems that the secretary of Defense, advised by Generals Dempsey and Ham, had responsibility for this decision, but he should be asked whether the president was consulted about it and if not, why not.
  7. In some ways, the most important question about Benghazi is whether we will make similar mistakes in the future, as the administration seems to be doing in Syria by outsourcing the arming of the Syrian opposition, resulting in a growing domination of the rebel forces by Islamist groups. And unlike Libya – where the people do appreciate the American role in helping them against Qaddafi – the people of Syria are bitter and angry about the emptiness of American rhetoric.

These are the questions for which Congress should be demanding answers. Instead of indulging in gossip, the country’s focus should be on issues of genuine national importance and on officials, including the president, who have the main responsibility for what went wrong and continues to go wrong, not only in Libya but even more dangerously in Syria.

37 thoughts on “Forget the gossip: Focus on Benghazi

      • re: I just noticed”

        now you know what Bengazi is really about…

        Bush had more than a dozen consulate/embassy attacks under his watch and how much did we hear about them at the time they occurred?

        how many “questions” were there about “security lapses” that resulted in the deaths of US citizens at that time?

        I submit that they did hit the newspapers and that most people realized that the world is a dangerous place and no matter how much security we have – the enemy will find the weakest areas and capitalize.

        We accepted this under Bush but under this President, we do not,, Why?

        • LarryG–how many Ambassadors were killed during Bush’s 8 years?

          Talk about “defining deviancy down”–your attempt at context is pathetic . . .

          Rely on Pavlovian responses to a conceptual bucket like “NeoCons” and then paint in misleading contextual information–nice try!

          • Thousands of American soldiers were killed in Iraq because of faulty intelligence. It doesn’t have to be an ambassador.

          • hmmm… ambassadors lives are worth 2000X soldiers, eh?

            FWIW – about 6 ambassadors have been killed over the years … and quite a few consulate personnel.

      • How is that? The Neocons are not religious and are not necessarily Jewish. Is someone who points out that the country was lied into war by a particular group automatically against the religious beliefs of some of its members? There is no particular evidence that Larry is prejudiced against Arabs or Jews so I cannot see how you can call him an anti-semite.

        • I’m an equal opportunity anti Neo-Con person.

          nothing to do with race or religion. I just hate to see our young people used for cannon fodder.

          • But some people have no problem with young kids, mostly poor and uneducated, being used as cannon fodder in order to ‘stimulate’ the economy via military Keynesianism. To them all wars are patriotic and all people who favour peace are subversives. Sadly, the voters have chosen a president who is a warmonger in all of the elections during my lifetime.

          • re: ” mostly poor and uneducated,”

            not all but a lot and the reason they would join to go to some god-forsaken place to get blown up by IEDs is

            and this is truly ironic –

            they want govt benefits, health care for their famiies and GI bill benefits so they can go to school and buy a house – something most of then – at age 18 or 19 with nothing more than a high school diploma cannot find a private sector job that would give them a deal like that.

            so.. the “volunteer” army is basically a bribe system for the young and dumb to go overseas and run the slice and dice gauntlet and if they are lucky – they return home and get their benefits to go to school to get a better job and own their own home.

            it’s the American dream after all and they only want their share of it.

            but this does not come cheap – the two wars – were justified as “off budget” but now the deficit chickens have come home to roost. We’ve more than doubled our spending on DOD/National Defense to the point where we spend as much on DOD/ND as we take in – in total in tax revenues,

  1. No doubt Mr. Wolfowitz is singularly qualified to lecture others on the “personal story must not divert attention”
    to the issues at hand.

    If you don’t get the irony, you’re not paying attention.

    People have no shame.

    • Max, I assume you have no right to the great name you’ve appropriated for the purposes of this forum, but you’re blessed if you actually have that name. Now, to address your snide comment: do you recall that Paul Wolfowitz inaugurated a great moment in modern international political history when he advised President Reagan not to back up the President Marcos and let democracy come to the Philippines? It was a great, far-sighted and successful instance of principle and courage that has tragically not been replicated effectively in the last several decades from either Democratic or Republican Administrations, despite Bush 43′s attempt to promote democracy around the world, unfortunately with improperly justified, unnecessary, and therefore ultimately unwieldy and unpopular wars . . .

  2. Interesting comments thus far — for someone surveying partisan whiplash. None of the comments so far takes issue with the substance of the article. A regards the Libyan debacle, Wolfowitz raises crucial questions oriented properly toward future policy. If there were similar problems under W, there is all the more reason to use Congressional hearings to get the policy right. I’ll grant that Wolfowitz’s throw-ins on Syria perhaps recall the muscular policy approaches many now reject. Probably Wolfowitz should have saved Syria for a separate article, since it raises a host of issues not closely related to the Libyan debacle, as far as anyone knows at this point.

    • re: “substance”.

      well the “substance” is that we have a crap load of embassies and consulates around the world – and they are attacked by local and regional terrorists on a continuing basis.

      we also have CIA in the field and often in and around our foreign embassy/consulate facilities…

      the world is a dangerous place, and bad stuff happens.

      you cannot prevent it.

      we’ve had multiple attacks under Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II and yet only in this administration is it said that it could have been prevented if only we had had enough “security”.

      think about the Marines in Beirut or the Cole.

      Did we say there was a “failure” of the Presidency because of them?

      No. Of course not.

      why now?

        • no other State dept people have been killed in prior administrations?

          re: lies about movies

          so WMD was “bungled” intelligence info and Bengazi is a lie?

          do you think that in most of these incidents – that the intelligence info is not 100% solid truth and a lot of it is supposition that is then accepted by the administration as plausible until more info is developed?

          Did Reagan lie about Iran-Contra? Did Bush lie about WMD?

          tell the truth. this is just more partisan attacks…not a whole lot more… We had dozens of attacks over the years, people killed, mistakes made… and yes.. less than the total truth about what happened and why.

          it’s happened in every single previous Presidency so why is this one different?

          • Actually, LarryG, Reagan reversed policy and pulled out of Beirut after the attack on the Marine barracks (by the way, sponsored by Iran) and the Cole was also recognised at the time to be the major failure in military preparedness that it was. You’re throwing around factoids, not facts, while making wild claims in your highly manipulative manner–you’re an Orwellian nightmare of mendacious rhetoric . . .

          • no factoids.. but yes facts. Every President before this one has suffered terrorist attacks on US facilities – every one, multiple times.. and it was never characterized the way this time is.

            this is pure partisan politics. nothing else.

            Obama’s opponents simply cannot accept that he was re-elected so now they are clinging to “gate” type hopefulness. These folks are not at all interested in moving the country forward.

            they are committed to trench warfare because they are pissed off about losing.

            that’s what this is really about.

      • Yes, consulates may get attacked, although I can’t really recall any recent ones other than the obvious, but when was the last time an American ambassador was murdered in one. And in such a henious way with his body carried through the streets (but we were only trying to get him to a hospital – right)

      • Actually, Reagan basically reversed policy and pulled out of Beirut after the attack on the Marines, and the Cole was similarly acknowledged to be the major lapse in preparedness that it was . . . you’re just throwing around factoids, LarryG, not facts in the most misleading and manipulative way possible. You seem to have stepped out of an Orwellian nightmare . . .

      • “the world is a dangerous place, and bad stuff happens.”
        Yes, as the Prez said, “just a few Bumps in the road”.

        “why?”

        Because we know that …

        … in the months prior to the attacks (as early as February) this administration IGNORED specific, repeated warnings from our ambassador and members of our security team in Libya that the security situation was rapidly deteriorating.

        … in the months prior to the attacks this administration IGNORED specific, repeated requests for increased security. In fact, the opposite was done.

        … even though the State Department issued an August travel warning citing the increasingly dangerous conditions in Libya, NO ACTION was taken to increase the security and protect Americans who were serving in Libya, especially around Benghazi where it was known that AQ and affiliated groups had a growing presence.

        … NOTHING was done to increase security in Benghazi even though conditions had become so dangerous this past summer that the office of the International Red Cross was closed and the UK closed its diplomatic office after its ambassador’s convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The UK ambassador is alive and well.

        … when the attacks on our consulate finally came, inspite of months of warnings against increasing danger, the President and the Secretary of State and repeatedly characterized the attack as a reaction to an anti-Muslim video. They went so far as to buy air-time on Pakistani TV to denounce the video.

        … when the truth began to emerge and the administration was questioned about the video cover story, the cover-up response changed to “We’re conducting an investigation”.

        … Hillary skipped town when those investigations began.

        … when the Prez finally schedules another actual press conference, the only nugget about Benghazi that we glean from his comments is that he’s really ticked that anyone would have the effrontery to question his UN ambassador’s performance ( the same ambassador the Pres says ‘had nothing to do with Benghazi”). He fails to explain why she was chosen to represent the administration even though “she had nothing to do with Benghazi”.

        That’s why.

        • If the situation was known to be dangerous for a while, why did they go with such few people instead of taking a substantial armed force to start with?

  3. Why should congress be focusing on these things? There is no chance that an investigation would lead to an actual change in the policies that prompt these type of attacks. There might be ways to improve safety, and these should be pursued at a lower level, there’s no need for it to take place on the national stage.

    The only realistic outcome of hearings would be to get some low-level personnel who made bad decisions fired, and give some high-level personnel who screwed up on handling this a slap on the wrist.

    Are there not enough domestic policy issues congress should be working on affecting millions of Americans, ahead of wasting time on this fairly inconsequential event with only very minor casualties?

    I don’t understand why this is important. Four people died. But hey, thirteen soldiers died to hostile fire last month, probably about as many will die next month too. We also have 8-9k civilians getting shot and killed year, also. Why does this one instance stand out? Why do people care about this over all the background noise?

  4. I have been writing about this at The Diplomad 2.0 since the beginning. We need to focus on Benghazi and Fast and Furious as the key exemplars of this administration’s attitude toward foreign policy and the law.

  5. The above recommendations may be sound advice…if that is we had anything even remotely resembling a responsible, free press to cover said hearings or an electorate that had any interest in anything serious.

    We have neither.

    So I offer counter advice, play up the tawdry and ribald aspects surrounding the case, to keep the presss & the people attuned to the proceedings(any X-rated pix or video would be a BIG plus) while carefully interspersing things of actual national importance through-out the hearings. This is the only way to keep our moronic electorate engaged long enough to impart the duplicity of this administration to the public.

    If you doubt that our nation’s sanity is so far gone that such provisions are necessary, I refer you to the events of 11/6/12.

    ‘Nuff said.

  6. Wow. Partisan whiplash abounds. Kudos on that comment Chris. So let’s try and sort it all out. Wolfowitz can’t make any valid points because, gee whiz, he got his version of Paula Broadwell a sweetheart deal at the WB. And since consulate’s get attacked all the time there is no need to investigate what happened in Libya. And even if there were, gee whiz, more soldiers die each week than that so it really is not a big deal.

    Other than Chris’ comment there is not one single comment in this string (so far) that has even a teeny tiny measure of intelligence. Just a bunch of partisan hacks willing to do what Holder, Petraeus, Rice et al have done, fall on their swords for their guy, the cult of Obama lives.

    I could write about Libya all day, but it is cocktail hour and trying to get through to most of you would prove senseless. I mean you had four years to figure it out and you could not. But there is this:

    The only question that needs to be to be asked is; what was the CIA really doing in Libya? Follow that trail and it will lead you to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
    As for me, I live on a sailboat and it is cocktail hour. Rum and coke today. And tomorrow. And the next day…

    • There is intelligent life on earth!
      Anyone who trusts anything about government is a fool. I don’t care if its Republican or Democrat, power corrupts. That includes St. Obama. The fact that this event even occured tells me something somewhere is wrong. And if we are not allowed to find out what it is then we will continue to see bad results. I’m guessing the problem is incompetance combined with political correctness (kind of the same thing really). When terrorist can pull something like this off, it is a big deal.
      That said, I think the most important issue is the National Debt and if this issue detracts attention from that I’d just as soon see this dropped. Our childrens future depends on our politicians manning up and working out a solution.

      • Sadly Obama is no better than Bush and his crew. Mr. W and his friends helped lie the US into two unnecessary occupations that have cost dearly in lives and financial stability. As far as I am concerned the leadership of both parties should rot in jail for some time.

    • The CIA was trying to push weapons into the hands of groups that would help it meet its geopolitical goals. Why else would it be there? It is unfortunate that Americans think that they are safer meddling in the affairs of other countries and thinking that they can control terror groups who actually hate them and are their enemies. When I was a kid other governments may have hated the US but most people loved it. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case any longer and Wolfowitz or his counterparts in the Democratic Party are the primary cause. The sooner they lose influence the better the country can be and the faster it can recover.

      • re: ” And since consulate’s get attacked all the time there is no need to investigate what happened”

        well no.. there needs to be an accounting and accountability but that’s not what Wolfowitz and his fellow NEOCONS and right wingers is lobbying for.

        they want to make this into Watergate and the obvious question is why the previous dozen attacks under prior Presidents were not.

        Wolfowitz and allied cannot accept that Obama got 4 more years so they amping up everything they can – continuing self-delusional behavior.

        The world is a dangerous place. Bad stuff happens, especially to US facilities and people.

        There is no way to provide airtight security at all Embassies and Consulates around the world 24/7.

        Yet the loonies like Wolfowitz say that because this President “failed” (the same way that Clinton, Bush and Reagan failed with similar loss of life) – this President should be judged differently.

        Why? Partisan politics.. that’s all. The right wing is beside itself over Obama’s re-election and will not accept it.

        it’s pathetic.

        • It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about what happened. Obama and his crew have certainly lied and should not be able to get away with those lies. That said, Mr. W is not exactly a credible voice in all this because he and his former boss told lies as big if not bigger than those of Obama. Your whole foreign policy apparatus sucks. The Paul that you need to pay attention to is called Ron not Wolfowitz.

  7. Here’s a question.

    There was a “battle” at Bengazi.

    How many people were involved. How many on the US side?

    how many US fought in the battle before we lost 4 people?

    how many people on the other side were killed?

    how many people were wounded on both sides?

    how come there were only 4 US people involved?

  8. Addressing the “fiscal cliff” challenges are actually MUCH MORE vital to our national security than determining who knew what when in Libya. So let’s allow the Congressional hearings/investigations to address the Libya, instead of the media having a hysterical obsession on whether the word “terror” was uttered on day one or day ten!

    America’s attention needs to be directed on the economic and fiscal issues facing our nation. Getting our financial house in order will contribute to growth in the American economy which will have positive effects on every domestic and foreign the country faces.

    Or we can continue obsessing on how evil Susan Rice was for saying what she understood to have happened and on whether or not President Obama won reelection because General Petreaus couldn’t keep his pants zipped.

    Actually, one issue we do need to address is military personnel should be promoted to high ranks only AFTER they understand how to use email at an above middle school intelligence level!

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