To read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Benghazi attack of 11 September 2012 is to come away with a sense, not of conclusions, but of unfinished business. Things can’t be left as they are. The Obama administration’s lack of responsiveness and accountability at every level is simply too much. There is little we can do about the past. But the profile exhibited by this administration’s leadership cannot be America’s future.
The report is 85 pages, and the Washington Post has it online here. (Page references are to the report’s internal pagination.) Whether you have followed this story closely or in less detail, I don’t think you’ll find the report tedious.
The military assets-vs.-problem-set mismatch
There might be a number of other things to say, but I will confine this post to two main points. First, the basic failure of leadership here is the Obama administration’s comprehensive failure to take into account the danger it was putting its own representatives into in Benghazi. Beyond the local security delinquency at the U.S. Mission compound, there was the failure to recognize that the mission in Benghazi probably needed military support on call, and that such support should be planned for.
The Benghazi problem fell outside of the categories in which our planning has routinely been done. With nations in danger of internal collapse, there’s a well established interagency planning path for potential evacuation operations. But that’s not what this problem was. Our objective for Benghazi at the time wasn’t to evacuate Americans from an insecure situation; it was to keep them operating in one.
It’s quite possible that we shouldn’t have had an ambassador and State Department personnel conducting the mission at all. Perhaps we should have had special forces – CIA or military – in the lead on it instead. It was, in any case, likely to require special military preparations, because it would entail operational scenarios that aren’t covered by either an evacuation plan or a local security plan for the compound in Benghazi.
The litany of missing, unavailable, or unprepared military assets in the report (pp. 29-32) indicates that this was never done. The litany may surprise average Americans who vaguely imagine that our military forces are still present, in significant numbers, all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Americans probably imagine as well that the assets we do have in the theater maintain the kind of alert status they did 10 or 15 years ago.
But they don’t. Our forces’ missions have changed with the post-Cold War drawdown, in both character and scope. In the last half decade, a force posture that could accommodate more surprises has changed, to a posture that will support only smaller and more restricted emerging needs.
The delinquency of the Obama administration doesn’t lie in cutting back on U.S. military missions and assets in theater. It lies in not taking that into account in setting up the mission in Benghazi. Americans have a right to expect what seems obvious: that if our nation has to perform an exceptionally dangerous task, we will use the right personnel for it, and make the right preparations.
Talking the talking points
The second point is about the stomach-turning cooking of talking points about Benghazi.
In one way, I differ with the focus of the Senate committee’s concern. The senators rebuked the intelligence community (IC) for how many days it took to discount early, conflicting – and faulty – media reporting that suggested the first attack might have started with a demonstration at the U.S. Mission compound in Benghazi. The senators may well be right about how long the correction should have taken. But the more important point is that the initial error doesn’t matter.
Even if there had been a demonstration prior to the attack on the mission compound, that would not have made the attack on the compound – several dozen armed fighters surging into it, firing weapons, setting fire to a building – any less of an “attack.” It wouldn’t have turned the later attacks on the CIA Annex into something other than “attacks.”
Whether there was a demonstration at the outset was always a secondary consideration, no matter what the reason for this putative sequence might have been. No one’s judgment about the primary, indisputable reality – that there had been a series of attacks – should have been clouded by the intelligence reporting about collateral features of the event.
The question of who was responsible was also secondary. The bizarre decision to excise all references to terrorists or Islamic extremists from the talking points is more important than the administration deleting specific group names. The latter might well be a politically prudent course given the specious rhetoric common in domestic politics (including media narratives). Be wrong about Ansar al-Sharia one time, and your national-security cred could suffer forever.
But that’s not what happened with the talking points. They were scrubbed of more than unnecessary specificity; they were scrubbed of so much of the truth that they became a lie.
So now what?
I don’t think most Americans need to be convinced of this by now. The question is what the Benghazi episode should prompt us to do. The best answer may be to accept and ponder the education we are getting about the dangers of complacent trust in government.
The surreal paralysis we experience as our federal government implodes – while yet running roughshod over us – should clarify for us that we aren’t overreacting to what’s happening. This really is a time of epic moral confrontation. The lies, failures, and cynicism ruling our public square are far beyond anything ordinary. I suspect more and more Americans are watching the same politicians on their TV screens, going through the same old motions of indignation and blame, and seeing with unprecedented clarity that this isn’t working.
The problem is simply bigger than that. We appreciate the Senate going to all the trouble of putting out this report. But we also know that the disease of which Benghazi is a symptom can’t be cured by politics as usual.
No matter what we do, there will be an ending and a beginning for our republic in the next decade. The good news is that we don’t have to let the kind of ending and beginning be dictated to us. Maybe the Senate report about Benghazi will help wake us up.