Saturday, October 20, 2012

Jeffrey Goldberg – The real Benghazi embarrassment

As is often the case, Jeffrey Goldberg is on-target here.  What happened in Benghazi was a significant human and diplomatic loss that ought to be mourned and a local defeat that needs to be understood and learned from, but not in itself an embarrassment or humiliation. "The embarrassment is that political culture in America is such that we can't have an adult conversation about the lessons of Benghazi," but instead have been sidetracked into a superficial pseudo-scandal that has more to do with political opportunism and partisan point-scoring than serious analysis. And "[b]ecause the conversation around Benghazi is so stupid," if the US government does draw any long-term institutional lessons from this experience, those lessons are likely to be stupid, counter-productive, and self-defeating.

I can't do better than to quote from Goldberg's discussion, so see below.  (For some follow-ups on the gradually emerging picture of what probably happened in Benghazi, as well as its political aftermath in the US, see here & here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Jeffrey Goldberg
October 12, 2012
The Benghazi Embarrassment

The embarrassment of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi is not that it happened. America has its victories against terrorism, and its defeats, and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American security personnel represents one defeat in a long war. The embarrassment is that political culture in America is such that we can't have an adult conversation about the lessons of Benghazi, a conversation that would focus more on understanding al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, on the limitations and imperfections of security, and on shortfalls in our intelligence gathering, than on who said what when in the Rose Garden.

What we've got now is a discussion about who needs to be fired, and which candidate is in a better position to score cheap points. Does Mitt Romney actually think that Barack Obama doesn't believe that what happened in Benghazi was an act of terror? A larger question: Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama, a president who is at war in more Muslim countries than any president in American history, is soft on al Qaeda? And one other question: Does Barack Obama believe that Republicans somehow aren't allowed to raise serious questions about the Administration's response to the attack? Again, I wish the Republicans would frame these questions not to raise doubts about the commander-in-chief's innermost feelings about terrorism, but to ask what specific actions do we need to take, quickly, to try to prevent follow-on attacks? Whatever happened to that whole notion of politics stopping at the water's edge?

Four quick points:

1) Because the conversation around Benghazi is so stupid, we're going to end up with more mindless CYA security "improvements" that will imprison American diplomats in their fortress compounds even more than they are already imprisoned.

[....]

4) As Blake Hounshell put it, "Amb. Chris Stevens was a big boy and he made his own decision to go to Benghazi despite the risks. If he thought it was too dangerous, he should not have gone." We've lost thousands of American government employees over the past 10 years in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Nearly all of them were in uniform, but Foreign Service officers know the risks as well. We need to treat the loss of these four men in Libya as a battlefield loss. That would require people such as Darrell Issa, who chaired a House Oversight committee hearing on the Benghazi attacks, from saying foolish things, like he did the other day. I wrote about this in my Bloomberg View column:
What Republicans shouldn't do is make statements like the one Issa made on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Oct. 14. Issa argued that if security officials had repeatedly requested reinforcements for U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya "and that's not being heard, then it isn't just Ambassador Stevens who is now dead -- it's everybody who works throughout the Middle East is at risk."

Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and 12 years after the fatal raid on the USS Cole in Yemen, and Issa has just realized that assignment to the Middle East might pose risks for American government personnel!

Here's the problem with Issa's stunning insight: In his desire to cast the administration as incompetent, he does an enormous disservice to the cause of forward-leaning diplomacy and engagement. American embassies are already fortresses. Issa would dig a moat around them. After a point, there's simply no reason to dispatch diplomats to hostile capitals if they can't engage with actual citizens. Risk is inherent for U.S. diplomats posted to the Middle East.
[JW: Anne Applebaum also makes that last set of arguments, which strike me as correct and important. "To my mind, there is only one truly disturbing element of this discussion: the underlying assumptions — made by almost everyone participating in the argument — that no American diplomats should ever be exposed to any risk whatsoever and that it is always better to have too much security than too little. [....] Diplomats who have no contact with ordinary people get things very wrong and are liable to be badly misunderstood themselves. [....] There is such a thing as too much security."]

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