Gregory Hicks testifying in Congress in May 2013.
There's so much noise about Benghazi now that it is hard to make any other point heard. And hard to justify even attempting to try to sound some different note that is already being sounded by the left and right. So much of the commentary in fact is about "honour and dignity" -- it's emotion. What a coup for the left that Robert Gates, the former Bush Defense Secretary, describes the current right-wing attacks on the Administration's handling of Benghazi as "cartoonish". But whatever the right-wing congressmen's understanding of how the military works, they are right to continue to ask questions because there is a disturbing way in which Obama personally keeps minimizing the nature and danger of terrorism. He most definitely did not use the term -- and the generic "acts of terror" that wouldn't be tolerated which he included in his much-discussed Rose Garden speech was not a substitute for acknowledging the nature of Benghazi. Imagine, he could give a speech at the UN after Benghazi about the future "not belonging to those who insult the prophet" -- as if insult isn't protected speech and as if there isn't something fundamentally wrong about letting insult regarding your religion serve as a pretext for violence.
Trudy Rubin knows exactly how bad the Arab Spring has turned out, contrary to its high expectations by liberals, because she's reported it exactly. She knows exactly what Obama is all about, because she's reported the Administration's inaction on Syria accurately, yet still can't resist scolding the right -- Daryll Issa for "politicizing" Benghazi.
That's what I mean about emotion -- whether pinning the problem on Susan Rice or Hillary Clinton, neither of whom is the problem -- or expressing indignation about even keeping the topic open -- which it most definitely should be -- there is a sense of distractions and taboos.
Yes, there's the constant sense that the right-wing, even Sen. McCain who should know better, are partly barking up the wrong tree. Susan Rice is irrelevant; the US does not view the UN as that important, and people at the UN do not make policy, even if they are in the Cabinet; they read talking points. And the issue isn't really about trying to bring in airplanes from Tripoli within an hour's notice, either. We get that.
And yes, Hillary was supposed to be in charge, but as we've been told many times, the CIA were running this operation, not the Secretary of State; diplomacy was at best a cover or a sidebar. If the real mission in Benghazi was to get back arms given to rebels (so the story goes) and not open up a hospital wing, is it any wonder there was an attack, and on September 11? I simply don't buy the excuse invoked by "progressives" (who suddenly care terribly about the CIA they usually hate) that Petraeus had to urge that references to Al Qaeda be scrubbed from the talking points to protect sources. Nonsense. They could have generically referred to Al Qaeda affiliates or even simply "terrorists" without having to mention the precise name of the splinter group.
Even so, there are so many disturbing questions, and I keep coming back to Sean Smith's last words, his sense that the people guarding the US compound were not trustworthy, his gallows humour with his gaming buddy in Eve Online using his game name "Vile Rat":
(12:54:09 PM) vile_rat: assuming we don't die tonight. We saw one of our 'police' that guard the compound taking pictures
It's not about planes from Tripoli; it's why we are guided by a force that "melted away" in the words of Eli Lake, but worse, I think, may have been in on it, if we think about Sean Smith's last warning.
Why the hell were they taking pictures? Were they casing the join and emailing them to their buddies in the terrorist group that attacked the compound to help them out?!
Every time I've been in a country overseas and visited the US embassy or consulate, I always found Marines guarding it. Oh, but I must not have gone to war zones (I have never been in any), because apparently there, they rely more on contractors. I can't imagine the thinking that even goes into hiring something called the "February 17th Brigade" named for a battle. Why weren't these at least US-based contractors? Is this because you *have* to use local people...or else? The New York Times pointed out the problematic nature of hiring the local militias after the fact.
Ansar al-Shariah actually guarded the hospital that Amb. Stevens was taken to -- the very hospital he was planning to visit the next day to open a new wing.
And that epitomizes the problem I tried to explain in a post at the time, "The Taliban in the Building" -- an expression that was used by an official in the hearings then to summarize the problem of those at the State Department who minimize and even deny terrorism.
I wouldn't go so far as calling them "the Taliban" but I would describe it as two (at least) warring camps -- those with the USAID or "development" approach, and those with the "freedom" or "democracy" approach (in fact, maybe it is at least three camps as "freedom" boosters and "democracy" builders are usually divided between Republicans and Democrats).
The point is, as I put it in the past post, is that we view the world as a place that we can fix easily with development programs after having technologically superior brief wars:
But there's no question that a mindset of our elites -- that we can go overseas and change foreigners with various aid programs supplemented or preceded by surgically-precise high-tech warfare -- is a real problem in the world and sadly, the reason for a lot of our failures. It's a mindset of projects and contracts instead of deterrence and counterpropaganda.
To be sure, we have some deterrence of course in our nuclear and conventional weapons and of course we have counterproganda of sorts where experts go and put comments on jihad sites and such in local languages. But this is not robust, effective, and vocal. It's wan, and those with the "development" approach are definitely winning under Obama. (The entire saga of the CIA in Benghazi is a relevant but other point which I will address in another post.)
The piece by Ethan Chorin, who could have been the last person to talk to the Ambassador in fact, is really telling of the mentality of the "development" approach -- which Amb. Stevens shared (my blog is quoted next, with Chorin's excerpts in italics):
I keep coming back to thinking of these men sitting late at night in this facility with shoddy security where they were soon to meet their deaths.
The ambassador wrote in a diary that -- again, we had to learn from CNN about, and not the State Department, and despite the complaints of relatives -- he was uneasy about his security. And yet he didn't feel so uneasy as to not hold a meeting there after hours with a Turkish diplomat until 8:40, and he didn't feel that it was a place he should avoid on the horrible date of 9/11 -- when terrorist threats of attacks on that date had been made around the world.
In fact, as we know from a piece that has fallen out of sight, the ambassador was expecting to go to a hospital the next day to assist in the launching of a program -- the sort of activity you do in a country when you think the war is over and the reconstruction has begun.
The piece is an op-ed by Ethan Chorin, who was supposed to meet Amb. Stevens on the day after he was killed. I say "fallen out of sight" simply because it says a lot about the ambassador's actual activities and preoccupations, yet hasn't been discussed.
Chorin writes on September 13 -- two days after the attack:
ON Wednesday morning [September 12], my colleagues and I were to meet in Benghazi with J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, to discuss a plan for a new division of emergency medicine at Benghazi Medical Center, the largest and most modern hospital in eastern Libya. The meeting never took place. The night before, militants laid siege to the American Consulate in Benghazi, killing the ambassador and three other Americans. The ambassador was taken, without a pulse, to the hospital we hoped to upgrade.
So the ambassador was thinking of Benghazi -- always described as an "opposition stronghold" during the war -- as a place safe enough to work on hospital upgrades -- reconstruction work, not war. Of course, he was a very savvy and seasoned man and spoke the local language, but he seems to have treated the dangers of the area more as a kind of occupational hazard that was under control than as a real threat -- we know he had suspended his morning jog after some attacks but then resumed them.
The draft agreement we were working on was the kind of visionary effort to improve life in Libya that Ambassador Stevens liked — in this case, a collaboration between doctors in Boston and Benghazi, brokered by a nongovernmental organization that a Libyan-American and I had organized after the recent revolution.
In horror, Chorin describes how he spoke to the ambassador late Tuesday night about plans for the hospital visit and how enthusiastic Stevens was, and then spoke to the security detail about the logistics -- only to have him swear and hang up after saying "We have a problem here."
Further, he describes the ambassador's thinking on the "root causes" of the problems of Libya:
Mr. Stevens understood that Libyans had suffered under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and that conflict and post-revolutionary instability were to be expected. He also understood that some, if not all, of the hatred that had pushed some of Libya’s youths to join radical factions in Afghanistan and Iraq had sprung from years of neglect and oppression. Now, he felt, new opportunities needed to be created to wean these people away from ideologies rooted in hate.
No doubt that was one reason he made a point, as ambassador, of continuing to visit Benghazi, the East’s largest city, despite the clear risks; there had been attacks on other high-level diplomats there in the previous months. It is a mystery at this point why the consulate compound was so lightly fortified, but I would not be surprised if Mr. Stevens had decided to stay overnight in Benghazi simply because his list of planned meetings with Libyans there was too long to be accomplished in one afternoon.
If the "development" mindset didn't prevail, there'd be a healthy awareness that this was a country still at war; that the attacks on the UN chief's convoy and the British ambasador weren't aberrations but realities of a country still at war. There would be a heavier military presence and there wouldn't be the naivite that you could simply open up hospital wings to pacify the locals.
Chorin's careful reproduction of Steven's belief -- the beliefs of LOTS of people in the building and overseas serving as FSOs -- is nuanced enough not to attribute "all" hatred to developmental problems -- "He also understood that some, if not all, of the hatred that had pushed some of Libya’s youths to join radical factions in Afghanistan and Iraq had sprung from years of neglect and oppression"
Even so, there's this belief that with enough early childhood nutrition and after-school programs, supplemented by job corps, why, people will stop clinging to their guns and religion. Imagine if ObamaCare could get all those Wal-mart shopping SUV driving gun-toters to give up their 2nd amendment obsessions if they had free mental and dental!
I never understood why the State Department didn't learn from the collapse of the Soviet Union -- that in fact led to the worst wars in decades for this region in Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Tajikistan and Georgia -- and led to some of the worst problems of inequalities and oppression of civil liberties -- that democracy and liberalism doesn't always bring good results for everybody. Oh, maybe they did learn but the people who learned this died out or went into the private sector as oil and gas consultants, and now most of the foreign service is made up of young people who don't remember the Soviet Union or its aftermath.
What's happening nowadays with the upsurge of the "progressives" and the "realists" (RealPolitik) is that the "freedom and democracy" gang is being trashed as too utopian and naive and even deadly, in getting America into wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan (for too long) and then having the world turn against us.
But Libya is all Obama's -- that was his quick, surgical technocratic strike that he thought would "lead from behind" and work rapidly and effectively. Obama didn't attack Libya out of a "freedom and democracy" ideology -- he doesn't share that ideology and it has always been alien to him. Rather, he did it out of a technocratic calculation that in fact was actually developmental (socialist) in nature -- that if only they could take out the oppressor by letting the Arab world and the EU take the lead, why, the developmental work we did subsequently would all work -- just like those PRTs that started under Bush and were continued under Obama were supposed to work in Afghanistan.
They didn't, for the most part. The "development" approach is as bad as the "freedom and democracy" approaches when they look for quick fixes or simple explanations of human behaviour. We left Iraq, after spending zillions. This week, 66 people were killed in suicide bombings without us there, just as hundreds of times over, 25 or 50 people were killed every month in other bombings there we had nothing to do with, except to be blamed for because we were present. The world is way more complicated than those myopic and juvenile comments flung on Foreign Policy to the effect that "the US is to blame for everything" and "kills the most people". It doesn't. Terrorists and extremist movements like the Taliban do, with the consent and even aid from theocratic authoritarian states like Iran.
I'm all for development aid -- we don't give enough of it. And I think democracy and freedom programs have every right to be central to that development aid -- and that when things like the expulsion of USAID from Russia occur, or the expulsion of the Peace Corps from Turkmenistan occur, for largely benign (and ineffective, even) programs, we should announce that all those funds are going to be kept for funding exile groups instead. This isn't "interference in internal affairs," it is part of what gives the universality of the best parts of the UN or OSCE its operational life.
But to accomplish this, I do think we have to face down this bureaucratic "Taliban in the building," if you will, who have prevailed for 50 years with their belief in their own superiority and the efficacy of fixing unhappy childhoods.
BTW, a good example of the insanity of this approach is the back-patting going on at the UN or State on the fulfillment of some of the Millenium Development Goals, i.e. lessoning the percentages of child mortality -- without any thought as to how jobs, let alone sustainable economies and goods, are going to be supplied to this now living, larger population. Did we just create a rising tide of expectations that is going to end only in more civil wars and terrorism against the West?
For too long we've had this belief that the foreign and civil service corps are "beyond politics" and "professional" and not bogged down in "partisan conflicts". That's just not true and maybe we have to drop this fiction. I think much more research and writing has to be done about these different warring camps at State and NSC and in particular confront the Obama Administration with their stubborn clinging to the developmental approach to terrorism (which also engenders their determination not to have a "war" on terrorism but instead to have a "police" approach).
A man like Gregory Hicks who is likely a Democrat *is* such a professional man with deep knowledge and experience of the Middle East region. But until the context he works in, and the highest leadership, decides that the "developmental" approach is central to America's errors -- and deaths! -- abroad, they will keep on happening -- as they did in the tragic death of Anne Smedinghof, a 25-year-old foreign service officer, as she delivered books in Afghanistan in a war zone. The State Department reversed a claim they originally made that the five Americans killed in this suicide bombing were in an armoured vehicle, and acknowledged that they were on foot.
We as a nation of conscience should give foreign aid and should promote both welfare, prosperity and democracy and freedom abroad. But to make it more effective and less deadly, we have to debate the actual nature of terrorism and its "roots".