Like the Marathon bombings, the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last September was an act of terror that must be examined closely for any lessons that can be used to protect Americans in the future. In the case of Benghazi, it now appears clear that there were serious lapses in security, intelligence, and coordination between the CIA and the State Department in the aftermath of the attack.
Unfortunately, the government’s ability to process any lessons from the attack is being obscured by presidential politics — involving both the 2012 and the 2016 elections. Some Republicans insist that the Obama administration’s failure to immediately characterize the raid on the consulate as a planned terrorist attack was an attempt to avoid election-season second-guessing. But even after months of probing, those critics lack evidence of a political motive. The logic of their insinuation is weak, as well: As an incumbent commander-in-chief seeking reelection, Obama could have benefited more from hyping a national emergency than downplaying one.
Likewise, attempts by Republicans on the House Oversight Committee to show a coverup by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have come up short. It’s entirely fair to judge Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential contender, by her handling of the Benghazi crisis. And this month’s committee hearing about the events that led to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others revealed a lot of confusion during the first hours after the attacks, and some questionable judgment calls, but no evidence of a deliberate coverup.
Meanwhile, the desire of many Democrats to defend Clinton shouldn’t lead them to turn a blind eye to legitimate failures. As with the Boston bombings, reasonable people can identify security and intelligence lapses surrounding the Benghazi killings without assuming any bad faith or incompetence among those involved. And there were, indeed, failures.
The hearing exposed a lack of coordination between the State Department and the CIA after the attack, with disputes over how it should be characterized reflecting each agency’s desire to avoid responsibility. Far from meddling, the White House seems to have failed to assert enough control over the bickering agencies for the truth to be disclosed quickly.
In addition, despite repeated requests for additional security, the State Department did not provide enough guards to protect the American compound in Benghazi. The sense of urgency wasn’t fully appreciated, despite the fact that Libya was in the midst of a violent transition following a period of US military involvement. Requests for stronger protections got lost in the State Department bureaucracy, and didn’t reach Clinton.
Going forward, there needs to be a much clearer sense of just how far the State Department should go in promoting “open diplomacy,” which led Stevens to make a priority of keeping open the Benghazi consulate, despite the obvious risks, as a way of engaging the Libyan public.
As the State Department’s role expands, in parallel with the military’s exit from many hotspots, the tension between open diplomacy and security will only increase. It is not a partisan issue. While the House Oversight Committee was meeting on Benghazi, US Ambassador Robert Ford entered Syria in the midst of a civil war. It was a bold overture, and a dangerous one.
The lessons of Benghazi shouldn’t be obscured by Republican efforts to inflict maximum political damage on Clinton or Democratic efforts to defend her. The stakes are too high, and the risks continue.