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.