There’s plenty of blame for Benghazi tragedy

By Dale R. Herspring

In the days after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Americans were promised a full investigation and assured that those involved would be brought to justice. When the possibility of a cover-up was raised, President Barack Obama and the State Depart-ment rejected it as a right-wing attempt to create an issue where none existed. Initially, the administration tried to pass the Benghazi attack off as a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim movie released in Los Angeles.

A report by the Senate Intelligence Agency released Jan. 15 made clear that the White House has not been truthful about the attack. What’s more, the committee concluded that the attack, which killed our ambassador and three other Americans, could haven been prevented. To quote the report:

“The committee found the attacks were preventable, based on extensive intelligence reporting on the terrorist activity in Libya — to include prior threats and attacks against Western targets — and given the known security shortfalls at the U.S. Mission.”

I spent over 20 years in the State Department, and I am not pleased to place considerable blame on it and those serving in it. There are two sides involved in dealing with an issue like Benghazi.  On the one hand there are regular Foreign Service officers — diplomats who run our embassies and who in Washington deal with foreign policy issues. Then there are specialists who are concerned with everything from intelligence to logistics and security. All attempt to work together, but they often end up on different sides.

It is also worth noting that the State Department is always a beggar for operating funds.  State does not have a domestic constituency.  Farmers lobby for funds for the Department of Agriculture, arms producers for Defense, all kinds of groups lobby for the Department of Education.  

The result is that there is always a battle within State.  Money for it has to be dragged out of funds intended for the practice of diplomacy. Also pertinent is a philosophy shared by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens that an embassy and consulate are to be open to the populace of its host country.  Few diplomats want to look on the embassy as a fortress, in spite of the dangers.

Ambassador Stevens, who was killed in the attack on Benghazi, spoke fluent Arabic and understood that part of the world as well as any specialist. Never-theless, he asked several times for more security. This led to a battle back in Washington.  There was neither enough people or money to satisfy State’s security needs.  

The situation was made worse by the lack of communication and integration of assets we did have in Libya. The danger of an attack on the anniversary of 9/11 was ignored.  We have military assets, but there was nothing available when the attack took place. Also, the CIA had assets in Benghazi, but no one planned for an attack on the consulate, which was poorly by locally employed individuals who fled as the first shot was fired.

Also important was the untruthful story the administration put out after the attack. For two weeks the administration kept trying to sell the attack as the result of an unruly crowd. Gen. Carter Ham said he knew within 15 minutes that it was a terrorist attack and told Defense Secretary Panetta that it was. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey subsequently met with the president and ended up following the White House line that the attack was not a carefully planned military operation but a spontaneous attack by a irate crowd.

Why did the administration dream up such an explanation when the key players knew it was wrong? The answer, as it usually is in Washington, is politics. A presidential election was coming, and the Obama administration’s mantra was that al-Qaeda was dead.  The administration did not want to give the Republicans any ammunition.

What does this say about our foreign policy establishment in 2012? The answer is that there is plenty of blame to go around around. First, Congress, more concerned about pleasing the folks back home, is at fault for not giving State enough money.  Second, Obama must share responsibility; he knew the nature of the attack but played it down. Then there is Hillary Clinton. She accomplished very as Secretary of State except set travel records. I suspect her handling of Benghazi will play a prominent role if she runs for president.             

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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