The long Benghazi investigation by the House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence has come to an end in a way that doesn’t resolve every question but should make anybody who cares about American foreign policy or justice reasonably happy. In the first place, the Committee’s finding that political appointees in no way interfered or otherwise behaved inappropriately on the night of the fatal attacks is good news about the character and patriotism of people in government service. In the second place, the willingness of what was clearly a GOP-led investigation to accept the facts and clear the names of those involved says something very positive about the GOP Congress. The MSM should unclench: partisan as some of its members may be, and hot as tempers sometimes get on Capitol Hill, this is not a collection of McCarthyite witch hunters who misuse the Congressional process to smear innocent people for political gain.
There are three basic questions about Benghazi: did the State Department and associated agencies do enough to guarantee the security of U.S. personnel in post-conflict Libya and, especially, at the Benghazi facility on the day of the attack? Did military, intelligence or other government personnel either negligently or maliciously commit errors while the attack was in progress that contributed to the American deaths? Did the White House deliberately mislead the American people about the nature and purpose of the attack in order to bolster President Obama’s popularity in the late stages of the 2012 election campaign?
The Committee report answers all three questions with a No. The State Department did not do enough to protect diplomatic personnel. No negligence or malfeasance was committed on the night of the attack. White House spinmeisters may have tweaked the story but neither the boys in the back room nor Susan Rice went off the deep end.
The first “no” will be problematic for the Clinton campaign—to the extent that anybody is still thinking about Benghazi in 2016—and the questions about spin will (and in my judgment should) persist, but overall the report is a win for the White House. That could change. There is one more shoe to drop on Benghazi; in addition to the Intelligence Committee report, a special House Select Committee on Benghazi has a report to produce.
As regular readers of these pages know, I never expected the Benghazi investigation to yield some explosive truth that would blow the administration out of the water. We are, so far, coming out pretty much where I expected: the Benghazi tragedy was an ordinary, garden variety example of poor choices leading to bad consequences in a dangerous and volatile world.
The question that the media has taken up, with its usual anti-Republican twist, is whether there should have been an investigation at all. A lot of taxpayer money went into a big investigation that got nowhere in the end. Was this really the right thing to do, people are asking, with the usual suspects in the mainstream media snarking in the usual way about clueless Republicans. Also at work is the press’s tendency, more marked in liberal Democratic administrations than at other times, but nevertheless always with us, to denigrate the role of the Congress in foreign policy. Unless the question involves stopping a presidential war that the press hates, or putting limits on the intelligence agencies, serious American journalists almost instinctively think of the executive as the home of good statesmanship. Congress is the home of ignorant know nothings and partisan grandstanders.
I am of two minds about the Benghazi investigation. On the one hand, anytime a U.S. ambassador is killed or a U.S. diplomatic facility overrun by hostile forces, we owe it to ourselves and to the people who represent us abroad to look very carefully into the circumstances. This is not, or should not be, primarily for the purpose of scoring political points or even apportioning responsibility. It should be to understand what went wrong so that, as far as possible, we can prevent the recurrence of similar tragedies in the future. This is due diligence, not partisan witch hunting, and if the Congress has reason to believe that CYA politicians or officials inside the executive are trying to sweep anything under the rug, Congress can and should take a look. That may not mean a formal investigation, but one of the reasons the Founders established three branches of government was exactly for the purpose of making sure that the executive branch got some outside oversight. Congress could not ignore Benghazi; a failure this bloody needed an outside review.
At the same time, with our Libyan policy, like the country itself, in ruins, one has the sense that the Benghazi investigation missed the larger point. The United States participated in the overthrow of the Qaddafi government, largely on humanitarian grounds, but we were utterly unprepared for the aftermath. Libya is in chaos today, radical jihadi groups have proliferated in the ruins, Qaddafi’s arms and fighters have fanned out across North Africa and the Middle East, and arguably more Libyans have died as the result of the intervention than would have perished had we stayed home. On top of this, there are credible allegations that the U.S. had guaranteed Qaddafi’s safety when he gave up his WMD program. Did our intervention in Libya break a pledge, or did it reduce our ability to persuade other countries to abstain from WMD programs? Did the decision to intervene in Libya also mean that the U.S. was less ready and able to respond appropriately to the much greater humanitarian and strategic crisis that holds Syria in its grip?
Benghazi was one consequence of a much larger and more serious policy failure, and the costs of that failure are still mounting up. By focusing narrowly on Benghazi, Congress missed the bigger question and the more consequential failure. Again, the question is less one of partisan politics than of the national interest: what can we learn from policies that go awry so that in future we can make better choices?
A review of our policy failure in Libya (or earlier ones in Iraq and elsewhere) isn’t just about second guessing and assigning blame. It is about making sure that the nation’s foreign policy infrastructure is up to the tasks that our turbulent century has set for us.
This is the investigation we needed after the Libya fiasco. Unfortunately, unless something changes we are unlikely to get it.
What we need to do at this point is begin to rethink the role of the Congress in American foreign policy. If there is one thing that has become clear since the end of the Cold War, it is that the United States needs to raise its game in foreign policy. The rise of China, the return of Russian revisionism, and the Middle East meltdown all pose complicated challenges. Meanwhile, other issues have not faded away: the future of the international trading system, the impact of WMD proliferation on world affairs, the transformative impact of the information revolution on both political economy within countries and on the relations between them—these all require American responses, and the signs point to that our government machinery isn’t up to the job of managing them well.
The United States Congress has to be part of the solution. The Congress has, for example, the power to review and reform the agencies in the executive branch, and this power may need to be invoked. Is it, for example, a good thing that the National Security Council in the White House has accreted so much power? If the President’s closest adviser on foreign policy is no longer the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, what degree of Congressional oversight is required in the NSC? Should its officials be subject to senatorial confirmation? If not, should the President accept limits on the NSC staff and the role of its chief?
But to really live up to its potential and to carry out its constitutional role in foreign policy, the Congress is going to have to raise its sights. It’s time to rethink what oversight means and how it should work. In particular, the Congress is the place where the country’s most serious public conversations and deliberations about foreign policy should be held. As it is, this country’s most important foreign policy debates are held on cable television and other news programs. That isn’t good either for American foreign policy or for the long term health of American democracy.
Since the 1940s, Congress has ceded much of its power in the field of foreign policy to the executive branch. Some of that is necessary and wise given the need for quick decisions and, sometimes, operational security in the hair-trigger world in which we live. And from Dean Acheson onward, secretaries of state and other “wise men” whose careers have mostly involved appointed positions in the executive branch have deplored the grandstanding and ignorance they associate with most congressional oversight.
Well, true enough. Not all senators and representatives are the equals of Metternich and Talleyrand. But then again, not many of our executive appointees are either as wise or as all-seeing as they may think they are: witness the Libya mess. From the side of the Congress, what’s needed is a serious personal commitment from a critical mass of members to master the knowledge required to play a role in American foreign policy commensurate with the needs of the hour and the importance of Congress’s constitutional role—combined with efforts to upgrade the processes and institutions through which the Congress carries out its mission.
A smarter Congress that provides an open and deliberative forum where the nation’s business can be debated and reviewed, and where big strategic questions are aired and, when and as appropriate, the executive gets guidance and instruction will help American foreign policy achieve the upgrade it so urgently needs in our difficult times. Getting this right is much more important than any number of targeted investigations.