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12.18.12

Why Hill Briefing on Benghazi Won’t Improve Security

Will the Capitol Hill briefing this week shed any new light on what actually happened in the Libyan attack? P.J. Crowley weighs the odds of improving embassy security.

Having reached a political verdict last week in a side show regarding who said what about the September attack on a temporary diplomatic post in Benghazi, this week we will hear a definitive account of what actually happened on scene, and most important, what can be done in the future to mitigate a growing risk to our diplomats around the world in the future. But given how politics have consistently trumped facts in this case, the odds are against meaningful change.

Personal politics fueled the assault that led to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to withdraw from consideration to be the next secretary of state. Institutional and budgetary politics will limit what will actually be done in response to the Accountability Review Board report that will be briefed to Congress later this week.

Senate Republicans vilified Ambassador Rice for her description of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, that claimed the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. But as she detailed in her withdrawal letter to President Obama, except for the fact that there was no demonstration prior to the assault, everything else she said five days later in a series of Sunday shows remains our best assessment of what happened: an opportunistic attack by a group loosely affiliated with al Qaeda in response to a protest in Cairo against an obscure American film that criticized the Prophet Mohammad.

John McCain in particular thought Rice deliberately misled the American people by not declaring the Benghazi assault an act of terrorism when she appeared on five Sunday shows five days after the tragedy. She did not discount the possibility, but using talking points provided by the intelligence community, she simply indicated that the administration had not yet reached that judgment, which it did three days later.

When all the facts are in, Ambassador Rice will prove to be far more right than wrong, but she will not be secretary of state.

Lost in the back and forth over the talking points—-who edited them, who uttered them and when to call it an act of terrorism—-is what the episode says about the changing global environment within which our diplomats operate. As the State Department pursues what it describes as “expeditionary diplomacy”—putting more diplomats in conflict and postconflict zones to help stabilize fragile states—-demands are increasing on our diplomats and so is the risk.

The responsibility to address this challenge will fall to Sen. John Kerry, who is expected to be nominated this week by President Obama to head the State Department. In contrast to Rice, who would have endured a bruising process, Kerry will be easily confirmed.

Kerry’s immediate challenge when he takes over from Hillary Clinton in January will be dealing with a tough Accountability Review Board report on the Benghazi tragedy, translating its findings into concrete actions that balance the demands for diplomacy and security across an unpredictable global landscape and convincing a Congress teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff to provide the resources necessary to carry them out.

Lost in the back and forth over the talking points—who edited them, who uttered them and when to call it an act of terrorism—is what the episode says about the changing global environment within which our diplomats operate.
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A picture shows damage inside the burnt US consulate building in Benghazi on September 13, 2012, following an attack on the building late on September 11. (Gianluigi Guercia/AP)

The ARB deliberations were conducted in strict confidentiality. While acknowledging that establishing the right balance between the security and accessibility of a diplomatic post remains difficult, the report will surely detail the diplomatic and bureaucratic judgments and misjudgments that contributed to the inadequate security in Benghazi relative to the threat that was manifest in the attack. While there has been considerable public debate regarding the limited response after the attack began and whether it could have made a difference in the tragic outcome, what is most significant is how institutional realities of an underresourced Department of State forced Ambassador Stevens to accept a higher level of risk than was warranted.

A key lesson learned from Benghazi is that the State Department is too dependent on others for its own security, whether local security forces in countries like Libya with weak or nonexistent capabilities; the military, which provided temporary support that was withdrawn before the attack (Marines are deployed to many embassies to protect classified information but were not assigned in Benghazi); and private contractors. The two former Navy SEALs who died in Benghazi were contractors, but as we have seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the presence of contractors has increasingly become a diplomatic irritant, not an asset.

There is every reason to believe that the type of attack we saw in Benghazi—-a target of opportunity by extremists still looking to strike out at the United States—-will occur again. If so, the security baseline in many countries has to increase. But in recent years, as the State Department has expanded its presence in difficult environments like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it has robbed Peter to pay Paul.  There are simply not enough resources to go around. The State Department is spread too thin. That was evident in Benghazi.

Better diplomatic force protection requires improved construction, but also more people. Both cost money. The State Department budget is about $50 billion, less than 1 percent of the overall federal budget and less than 10 percent of the budget of the U.S. military. But Congress regularly adds money to an administration’s budget request for defense, and subtracts money for diplomacy.

There is a cogent argument to be made that, as wars come to a close, military requirements go down and diplomatic demands go up. This argument has been made before, and ignored before. Given the considerable headwind over the budget, the fiscal cliff, and sequestration, it remains to be seen if Congress will provide the necessary resources to make the improvements called for in the Benghazi report.

If past and present politics are a guide, it’s doubtful.