Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!

September 24, 2014

As I read Ryan Evans’ frustration with the continued Congressional Republican focus on the Benghazi attacks, I appreciated his perspective and found his analysis almost entirely on point. But he misses two points, one by commission, one by omission.

First, the creation of the House’s Select Committee on Benghazi that triggers Evans’ ire was not the product of paranoid conspiracy theorists. Although most social media activity by political action committees (both right and left) is intended to be red meat for hyper-partisans, and the events at the U.S. Annex and the Obama administration’s ineptly disingenuous communications response play exceedingly well to the right’s “lunatic fringe,” the reality is that conservative/Republican anger on this issue is more widespread than Evans appreciates, and not unreasonably so. This visceral reaction stems in part from the role the attacks are perceived to have played in the 2012 campaign when Candy Crowley – the supposedly neutral moderator of the second presidential debate – intervened on President Obama’s behalf on a substantive point, and incorrectly at that. This incident, combined with the perceived lack of media interest in two other scandals, created the appearance of a stonewalling administration abetted by a compliant media. This belief was initially sparked by the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scandal (in which 21 House Democrats joined the Republicans in holding the Attorney General in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents). Later, traditional media outlets seemed uninterested by government officials pleading the fifth, emails that were not backed up in accordance with federal record keeping laws were conveniently erased, and a slew of hard drives and Blackberries were mysteriously recycled in response to investigations over whether the IRS targeted grassroots conservative groups during the 2012 campaign.

One does not have to accept the veracity of these scandals or the degree of White House culpability in them to recognize why many people believe Benghazi fits into a broader pattern of perceived administration obstruction and media indifference. In fact, fifty-one percent of those surveyed in a June 2014 Washington Post/ABC News poll said they supported a new Congressional investigation into the Benghazi attacks. In other words, the doubts outlined above are not confined to the far right’s fever swamps.

Ironically, just hours after War on the Rocks published this article, news broke that one of the State Department officials reprimanded over Benghazi claimed that aides of then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton removed documents before they were turned over to the State Department’s own Accountability Review Board. Even if these claims are true, it is unlikely these documents reveal that President Obama issued a stand down order from a posh golf course or that Secretary Clinton sat atop the consulate playing a fiddle throughout the attack. However, it does suggest that it may still be premature to say we know everything about the attacks or that there are no controversies remaining. (It should also be noted that both the left and right are susceptible to bouts of derangement: ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a majority of self-identified Democrats said they believed the Bush administration knew about the impending attacks and yet did nothing).

Second, Evans is absolutely correct that such conspiracy theories distract from important substantive issues. He is also correct in his assertion about the Benghazi attacks’ significance: the immediate furor exposed the cynicism of the administration’s national security communications apparatus, prevented Susan Rice from becoming secretary of state, and drew attention to America’s withering power projection capabilities. But beyond the benefits that Evans identified, there is another strategic implication of the events of 9/11/2012 that needs to be addressed: America’s level of preparation to meet an increasing need to post U.S. civilian personnel in strategically important yet less-than-perfectly secure regions. One of the key lessons from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is how important an understanding of local social structures and economic conditions is to shaping both kinetic and non-kinetic operations. This knowledge was in critically short supply during the early stages of both wars, and any future interventions will likely see earlier and increased demand for civilians with such expertise.

In a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world, however, the American public will likely be less willing to deploy large numbers of U.S. ground troops to counter threats than it was in the immediate aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. homeland. Whatever its merits or faults, President Obama’s declared strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a reflection of this fact. Yet if non-kinetic levers of power are to be utilized in countries where the United States seeks to mitigate threats before they rise to the level requiring military intervention, this will require an increase in both diplomatic and development (and covert intelligence) personnel to regions plagued by persistent low-level conflict where they will be appealing soft-targets for anti-U.S. actors. Thus, despite the danger of “hearing fatigue,” we need a definitive account of the lessons learned from Benghazi precisely because we are so likely to face a similar situation again in the not-too-distant future, to include determining how we can improve our Quick Reaction Force capabilities and options to protect other at risk embassies/consulates in the region.

Fortunately, according to the Washington Post, this appears to be the direction in which the Select Committee hearings are headed.

Yet to paraphrase Winston Wolf, “Let’s not start congratulating each other just yet.” (It is my understanding that although quoting Pulp Fiction is permitted — even encouraged — at War on the Rocks, we still must maintain a PG-13 rating.) Ryan’s concerns are not unjustified, as one should never underestimate Congress’s ability to revert to lowest common denominator partisanship. But rather than dismissing the hearings as the product of the lunatic fringe, national security experts should stay more focused on the hearings to ensure they remain on the right track given the importance of the issues at stake to the future conduct of American foreign policy.

 

Dr. Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department and National Security Council official and the Director of Programs for JINSA. His views are his alone and do not represent the opinions or positions of JINSA.