The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on May 8, 2013
Benghazigate: Republicans Missing the Point

It may be that, even as I am writing this very sentence, a mid-level State Department official named Gregory Hicks is testifying before a Senate Committee and, in effect, connecting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (never mind the hapless Susan Rice) to a cover-up in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya. You might be wondering, why am I writing about this before his testimony, when by the time you read this he will have given it? The answer is that it doesn’t matter what happens during this hearing, at least as far as Libya and U.S. policy toward that country are concerned.

This hearing is not really about Libya, or U.S. policy, or what actually happened on and after September 11 of last year. This is about the presidential politics of 2016. The Republicans, led by John McCain and associates, are trying to smear the reputation of the person they think is the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee: Hillary Clinton. Personally, I’m not enthusiastic about the prospect of Mrs. Clinton as President; nor do I think she was such a good Secretary of State. But it is a fantasy, and a lurid fantasy at that, to try to hold her personally accountable for what happened during and after September 11, 2012, in Libya.

More than that, it is a distraction from the key policy lesson we should by now have learned from that whole unfortunate episode. Whatever the real mix of reasons that went into it, the Libya war was a mistake. It has touched off a cascade of completely predictable misanthropies (if I predicted them, which I did, I take it for granted that others, not least then-Defense Secretary Gates, did too). It has, to take just one example, ensnarled the French in a real mess in Mali, probably made things worse in increasingly ghoulish northern Nigeria, and it is already washing back into Libya, threatening to alienate the southwestern, Tuareg chunk of Fezzan permanently from the Libyan state (such as it is). The sin that Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton (and others) committed was starting this stupid war in the first place, and then having no plan whatsoever for a post-Qaddafi “Phase IV” (remember Iraq?). That is the decision that began the sequence of events that got Ambassador Stevens and three other American officials killed.

Why aren’t Republicans on the make making this argument?  Why can’t they connect these obvious dots? Because they are in the main cheap hawks, wanting to use force more or less promiscuously without worrying, to all appearances, about aftereffects or how we would pay for more major military operations in the region. Of course, if they were in power, instead of in a position to lob partisan propaganda grenades from the sidelines, they might adopt a more reasonable perspective, but they aren’t, so they don’t. Whatever the reasons, that’s all the Republicans have to offer these days on national security policy—unless one wants to reference the small-minority Rand Paul isolationist wing of the GOP (and please, let’s not do that).

Actually, if the GOP wants to give its inner-hawk room to fly, there’s an obvious way to do it—and it’s not at all obvious to me why they don’t jump on it with all their talons. Consider: It has been nearly eight months since Ambassador Stevens’s murder, and the U.S. government has not done a damned visible thing about it. We have a pretty good, if not necessarily court-actionable, idea who was behind this—a guy named Ahmed Abu Khattala. Not long after the murders, Abu Khatalla held a kind of informal press conference at an outdoor restaurant in which he strutted, lied a lot, and seemed to take pleasure, if not explicit credit, for the attack on the Benghazi consulate. Yes, it took us nearly a decade to find bin-Laden (and in this light, and considering that Ayman al-Zawahiri is still breathing, why anyone would think that this was some sort of glorious success I swear I cannot understand), so eight months is not a long time in comparison. Yes, but still…

Now why is this? Well, I don’t doubt that Mike Vickers over at Joint Special Operations Command is trying to figure a way to whack this guy (and possibly some of his associates), but with the rules of engagement being what they are, and with the divisions of lawyers sprawled all over the Defense Department as they are, it’s not easy to get a clean shot. More important, no doubt, is that the State Department probably opposes doing anything without the cooperation and assent of the Libyan government. But the Libyan government is hopelessly feckless. We have not even been able to “interview” Abu Khatalla; Libyan authorities won’t pick him up or question him for fear of literal retaliation. And it seems clear that achieving swift justice in this matter is not high on the list of White House priorities.

So nothing seems to be happening, and nothing probably will happen—which is predictable since it, too, is part of a very unfortunate pattern. Consider that five U.S. Ambassadors have been murdered in office since 1965, three of them in the greater Middle East. In 1973, the PLO murdered Cleo Noel Jr. in Khartoum, Sudan. No retribution was ever exacted for his murder. In 1976, Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr. was murdered in Beirut.  No retribution was ever exacted for his murder. In 1979, Ambassador Adolph Dubs was murdered in Kabul. No retribution was ever exacted for his murder. And most recently Ambassador Stevens in Libya. Well, if you hate the United States, why not murder an American diplomat or three? There’s no price for it, apparently.

This is what the Republicans should be shouting about: the abject failure of the Obama Administration to raise any deterrent to attacks against American diplomatic personnel abroad.  But since it’s a lot less partisan an issue, they apparently can’t be bothered to think that far along.

  • Anthony

    Finally, respected contributor at TAI provides readers with legitimate interpretation about l’Affaire Benghazi; as you mentioned before, challenges and problems aplenty face us in Middle East. However, concerned and patriotic Americans ought to view U.S. strategic foreign policy interests in a less partisan and vitriolic context. Thanks for refreshing, informative, and important essay (in my opinion).

    • adam Garfinkle

      You’re welcome, and thank you for your kind and temperate words. A rare thing these days.

      • http://www.intellectualimperialism.wordpress.com Griffonn

        Sounds like an ad hominem to me.

        You are saying that our concerns aren’t really valid, that those of us who care about what happened at Benghazi are simply trying to smear Hillary.

        The reality is that I care very deeply about what happened. The administration engaged in a bunch of very odd and inconsistent behaviors that left Americans dead, then engaged in more odd and inconsistent behaviors. I simply can’t believe that people are arguing, straight-faced, that this is not a legitimate avenue of inquiry.

        The idea that “every administration does it” so “therefore we should not” [ask, demand answers, get upset] is a very dangerous argument. If “everyone does it”, the logical conclusion is to prosecute everyone who does it – not to simply accept corruption as a normal, acceptable thing not worth getting upset about.

        • adam Garfinkle

          See my response, below, to comment #10. It is exactly the same response I would give you. Yes, there were screw ups on and after Sept. 12 of last year, but also yes, there has been an inquiry (the Pickering investigation) and the results of it are not trivial. And also to repeat, it is calamitous to judicialize policy judgments. If we do that habitually, no one worth having in government will want to serve in government, and no one will ever dare do something bold. Accountability is not a synonym for “prosecution”–what a horrifying elision.

  • K2K

    Sorry, but you should have waited for the hearing.
    It was embarrassing to have the Dems on the House Committee speechify instead of actually asking questions.

    I thought the most important revelation was how Susan Rice’s talking points embarrassed and humiliated Libya’s PM, leading to a sudden difficulty in getting the Libyan government to let the FBI team into Benghazi.

    But, what difference does it make?

    • adam Garfinkle

      Good question. Probably not much.

      I can always write another post, now that the hearing is over and the standard s___show is in progress. I don’t think wrote too soon; it helped me make my main point.

  • Lehnne

    Not sure observing that our political parties engage in destroying the political prospects adds anything to the issue. I’ll read the commentaries by Adam lamenting the destruction of the political opponents of Democrats rather than governing as they must exist if he is to be considered credible.

    • adam Garfinkle

      What it adds is the truth about motives. You don’t think that’s worth saying? Weird….. And your last sentence I simply don’t understand.

  • Glenn Schoenfeld

    I agree that we should be focusing on retribution.

    I also agree (as laid out for a long time now by WRM) that the Libya war was a huge mistake.

    On the domestic side, however, there is a huge story which you are not addressing which is that it appears that the White House, with the help of the MSM, engaged in a huge campaign of misdirection and falsehoods for partisan purposes. If we can’t confront and call out lies on this level (and remember there is a hapless film maker still in jail–which makes this whole affair reek of banana republic level politicing), our republic is in horrible shape. Moreover, this has to be a major indictment of the MSM for its complicity with the White House’s intentional compaign of lies. If these hearings can be used as an opportunity both to shame the press and to pressure it into covering the WH with even a modicum of even handedness (yes, I am dreaming), it would be a major benefit to the country.

  • WigWag

    “This hearing is not really about Libya, or U.S. policy, or what actually happened on and after September 11 of last year. This is about the presidential politics of 2016. The Republicans, led by John McCain and associates, are trying to smear the reputation of the person they think is the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee: Hillary Clinton.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    Whatever Mrs. Clinton’s complicity in the botched Libyan policy may have been and regardless of whether or not she exercised poor judgment during the crisis of September 11, 2012, there is something embarrassingly pathetic about the Republican attempt to “smear” her at the Senate hearings.

    The incantation, “Remember the Alamo” may have spurred on Sam Houston’s troops at San Jacinto in 1836 but the plea to “Remember Benghazi” will, at best, inspire quizzical looks in 2016. Rightly or wrongly, Benghazi is old news eight months after it happened. The idea that it will have any political traction three and a half years from now is so laughable that it is barely worth mentioning.

    Mrs. Clinton will be an extraordinarily strong candidate in 2016 should she choose to run; it’s hard to imagine the Republican candidate who could beat her. Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan; they are all capable politicians. Clinton is a rock star. In fact, she’s the last political rock star left in America.

    If the Republicans want to have any chance against her at all, they need a real strategy; these hearings don’t qualify. If they don’t watch out, by the time this is over, two thirds of the country (and 80 percent of American women) will end up feeling sorry for Hillary Clinton and be more inclined to vote for her than ever.

    • adam Garfinkle

      All good points, every one of them. Well written, too.

    • Van Dessel

      I would wait until all whistleblowers, whatever you want to call them, witnesses to the Benghazi affair have been heard.

      In the end, you may be right. For many reasons, most of them recent, 2016 will be the epitome of cult of personality politics.

  • Kavanna

    Certainly, there’s a reason why the GOP is called the “stupid party.” And the Libya war, as executed, was a mistake. Might there have been another way to deal with that branch of the Arab Spring?

    But the partisan aspect is real. By that, I mean that the coverup/mass distraction that went on last fall about Benghazi by both the administration and the media had a clear partisan purpose, getting Obama re-elected and removing attention from the fact that he’s an empty suit.

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  • Gary Brown

    You should have waited for the hearings…issues are 1) abuse of power (see also IRS), 2) Cover up (see abuse of power, lies), and 3) Incompetence…unfortunately, addressing these apolitically is not possible for any involved on either side. If ANY of above are TRUE, it offers an apolitical argument that HRC should not be president.

  • Huttle

    NO! The POINT is that this administration LIED to cover up their incompetence and did so by attacking a constitutionally protected American citizen. THAT is DESPICABLE! Period.

    • adam Garfinkle

      Disagree. Every administration does stuff like this. It is a calamitous mistake to judicialize political judgment.

  • Becky

    The Republicans, led by John McCain and associates, are trying to smear the reputation of the person they think is the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee: Hillary Clinton… it is a fantasy, and a lurid fantasy at that, to try to hold her personally accountable for what happened during and after September 11, 2012, in Libya.

    If no one can ever be held to account, why shout about the abject failure of the Obama Administration to raise any deterrent to attacks against American diplomatic personnel abroad?

    Was Hillary Clinton selected by Barack Obama to be our Secretary of State, or not?

    Was Barack Obama selected by us to be our Commander in Chief, or not?

    What is a Commander in Chief?

    You seem to want accountability without any one person ever being held accountable.

    If all are saved and none are damned what is there to shout about? Is “shouting” better than “smearing”? A stylistic difference?

    • adam Garfinkle

      I take your main point, but you seem not to notice mine.

      Moreover, there has been some accountability, or have you forgotten the Pickering investigation? Heads rolled after that, which is a very rare thing in the State Dept.

      I’m not saying that the administration didn’t screw up; in several respects it may have. I am saying that perseverating on this is being launched from venal partisan motives, and that it obscures the real point.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Not to put too fine a point on it, but really, what were the consequences? A couple of mid-level execs (none of them at the SES level) lost their jobs (not their pensions, and none will face any sort of enduring consequences as they will move to think-tank and academic positions fairly quickly), and there are no legal consequences whatsoever for anyone. Susan Rice didn’t make it to SecState, true, but she will find another promotion waiting for her in the not too-distant future. These are not heads rolling, they are wrists being slapped with a wet noodle.

        As for Pickering’s investigation, HRC was not even questioned, nor was anyone with any real political standing brought to account. The criticisms were ambiguous and largely anonymous, and carefully parsed to avoid any real impact.

        The message to future ‘crats and politicians is that if they are careful, they can avoid any real consequences no matter what they do. These are hardly disincentives for future misbehavior….

  • Dick

    I have always thought it curious that no one asked the simple question on what basis ( what factual information) did the administration conclude that it was the video that inspired the spontaneous mob that turned violent. Where was the Libyian equivalent of George Gallop to tally up the answer? Our inability to go after the person who apparently bragged about doing it isn’t that at least a little curious. Did those interviewing him ask him what motivated him?

    • adam Garfinkle

      The elision of the video with the attack had a lot to do with the immediate catering our official think they owe the media. I wish folks would go slower and say less. Our inability, so far, to go after the perpetrators isn’t “curious”; I explained it in the post. It just is what it is. As for whether anyone asked Khatalla about his motives, go back and read the account from Reuters. Journalists often fail to ask good questions, often because they’re stark raving ignorant about the subject they’re involved in. That also just is what it is.

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  • Carol

    Why is it a lurid fantasy to think that Clinton should take the fall for what happened? She was Sec State, yes? The Libyan intervention was her idea, yes? She apparently disregarded repeated warnings about increased threat levels, from both the Libyan government and the ambassador, her ” good friend” Stevens. And, she bungled the handling of the actual event. Does the buck not stop anywhere in this administration? Do you want to blame this on Bush, too?

  • adam Garfinkle

    Let me try to answer your well-intentioned, logical, but naive comment.

    Of course the buck has to stop somewhere, and to her credit Mrs. Clinton has acknowledged general responsibility for what happened–which is more than the President who appointed her appears to have done. But it is a sign that you have never worked high up in government to think that security-related decisions about consulates reach the Secretary. Nor do crisis management decisions that evolve over mere minutes and hours typically reach the Secretary. We have a diplomatic security system for that, and the last thing the professionals want here is for some political appointee who has no experience or training in handling such things to act like a monkey in the machine room. As the Pickering report shows, DS (diplomatic security) did screw up, but that was because the Interagency did not work–i.e., the Benghazi consulate attacked was essentially a CIA operation, and the initial reaction would have been mainly its responsibility, not the State Department’s. “She” did not “bungle” anything, because her hands were not literally on the decision-wheel. This is why attempts to pin this on Mrs. Clinton are disingenuous and transparently partisan in nature, because the GOP Senators behind this know what I have just explained to you.

    Was the intervention Clinton’s idea? Well, now at least you’re getting to my main point–that the intervention itself was the cause of the tragedy. But no, it was not Clinton’s idea. When various NSC types and others proposed it–Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Dennis Ross, Susan Rice at the UN and others–Sect. Clinton was leery, largely because Defense Secretary Gates and the JCS opposed it (as well they should have). She was eventually won over to the idea, but joined with others in demanding that several conditions be met first–and it was on this basis that a reluctant President leaned toward intervention, probably believing that the conditions’ not being met would be his escape hatch. Maybe Sect. Clinton thought similarly. He, or they, were mistaken. That, to the best of my knowledge from the public record, is what happened.

    Yes, the buck does stop, and thanks to the Pickering report, at least some of those actually responsible for screwing up got what they deserved.

    Your remark about my wanting to pin this on Bush is too puerile to deserve comment.

    And finally let me repeat what I said in the post: I am not enthusiastic about Mrs. Clinton becoming President and I do not think she was a good Secretary of State. I am not a registered Democrat and did not vote for Obama either in 2008 or in 2012. I am not defending the handling of Libya from March 2011 to September 2012 and beyond. I am simply saying that the acute focus on September 2012 is idiotic from an analytical point of view, and hence can only be explained by partisan motives. Maybe I should have spent more words in the post explaining how the government works in moments of overseas crisis.

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  • Doug Wenzel

    The problem I always had with our intervention in Libya is that we had made our pact with the devil to bring Muammar Gaddafi in from the cold and get him to dismantle his WMD program.

    We should have kept it; otherwise, the next one of his kind would never make a deal.