By Patricia H. Kushlis
As the tragic news trickled – then flooded – out of Benghazi last week in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US Mission in Benghazi (it has yet to receive Consulate status), circumstances surrounding the burning of that building and the deaths of the four American employees including US Ambassador Chris Stevens raise multiple questions in need answers.
On September 20, Hillary Clinton announced the creation of an Accountability Review Board to look into what happened. Her announcement came none too soon. The board’s inquiry is to be chaired by Thomas Pickering a veteran diplomat and former Under Secretary of State. Pickering is smart, respected and an excellent choice. The panel will be operating under a law passed in 1986 intended to strengthen security at American diplomatic missions.
But where’s the line between adequate security and need for US diplomats to have decent access to people in the countries where our installations are located? I think this balance still needs to be found. Pickering of all people must understand the dilemma but our massive security apparatus which has mushroomed since 9/11 and especially State’s Office of Overseas Buildings (OBO) and Diplomatic Security (D/S) also need to recognize that one size does not fit all.
So many questions, so few answers
Nevertheless, if I were a member of Pickering’s inquiry, here are some of the questions – listed in no particular order - I would ask.
2) Why were other Mission employees safely escorted to a second building occupied by the Mission (later attacked by the militants) but the Ambassador allowed to remain in the main one - apparently locked in a safe room? Since when are US Ambassadors expected to “go down with the ship?” Who was in charge of the Benghazi Mission anyway when all this happened? What were the instructions from Washington as how to handle worst case scenarios of this sort – or were there none and did State react too late? What happened to personal security precautions and training that all US Mission employees should have received prior to arrival and during their assignments in Libya? Did they all go up in the fire’s smoke – in something akin to the fog of war?
3) Why did the Ambassador go to Benghazi on September 11? Was the trip so time-sensitive that it could not have been postponed for a few days or was the business so important that it needed the Ambassador’s presence? Right then? Was American intelligence so dense that the possibility of something untoward happening on an auspicious anniversary was not a determining factor - even if the intelligence “chatter” did not indicate a blow-up in the offing as is claimed? If CNN's report of the contents of the Ambassador's diary are accurate, he did know - and was worried about - the presence of the militant Islamic militias. Had he not reported this to State? Or is State playing CYA?
Or if State didn’t know, why not? Putting aside a terrible video which may have been the spark, days of remembrance are important in the Muslim world – just as Christmas and Easter are sacred to Christians. Militant Sunni Islamists will neither forget their “triumph” on 9/11/2001 nor America’s killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Did no one consider this – including Arab specialist Stevens - before his embarking on what turned out to be this perilous last journey?
4) What was the Benghazi security chief thinking when he appeared to downplay the actions of the militants which he publically claimed were likely in response to the now infamous You-Tube video produced and uploaded by a couple of anti-Muslim provocateurs in the US (it is no longer available for viewing here) that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed so pejoratively as to set off anti-American demonstrations and worse from Tunis to Jakarta when it was picked up and broadcast by mainstream media in the Muslim world?
5) Why does the US have an official presence in Benghazi? What is the building’s primary purpose? And why were US officials allowed to work in a facility with such poor security and safety in a troubled city in the Muslim world this day and age? I’m no fan of fortress embassies but how important was this installation to US national interests and if it is significant why wasn’t it better protected and why didn’t the US intelligence community know some kind of attack from local militias was in the offing? And why weren't there security officers and public diplomacy officers on the scene to deal with the journalists who were reportedly wandering around the compound in the aftermath picking up materials - the most important of which may be Stevens' notes - that didn't belong to them? If the journalists could get there in record time, why couldn't appropriate US government officials?
6) What happened to the Ambassador’s body? Was it rescued by helpful Libyans and taken to a nearby hospital as reported by Reuters or – as unauthenticated videos suggest – was it dragged through the streets by crazed militants? Or if not the Ambassador’s body – does the early dragged-through-the-streets rumor have any credence at all?
7) Why did the State Department take so long to release the names of two of the four American employees killed? I know – the answer is that it took time to notify next of kin – but in this day and age of instant communications it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. What was the hold up?
8) How many other US facilities abroad are as vulnerable to crazed mobs as the one in Benghazi and why did it take the Libyan government security forces so long to act? After all, diplomatic institutions and their occupants rely ultimately upon the security of the host country and the Libyan government – unlike Tehran in 1979 – does not support fanatical Islamists. Neither do the majority of Libyans.
9) The attacks began at 9:30 pm. If the US Ambassador chose to sleep in the building overnight – and I’m not sure whether this was necessary or even advisable - why was he so lightly guarded?
The war for the heart of Islam is far from over. It rages across continents. It bisects and trisects ethnic groups and tribes. It challenges the post-colonial order; yet few Muslims are militants – for the vast majority, jihad means the struggle within oneself although many Muslims remain anti-western and critical of US policies in the Middle East.
Their frustrations have three elements: 1) decades of US support for secular military dictators who gained power and imposed their wills on the populations when the colonial powers left after World War II; 2) US fealty to Israel and its policies – especially Netanyahu’s no-holes-barred Greater Israel - whether or not Israeli policies really support American national interests; and 3) a population boom that has resulted in huge pools of poorly educated and underemployed young men who see only a bleak future because their own society’s institutions have failed them. This latter reason, after all, is what set off the Arab Spring in a Tunisian market December 2010 in the first place.
Yet of all Muslim majority countries, Libyans today are by far the most supportive of the US.
This corroborates with the results of a Gallup poll taken last spring and released in August that indicates that a majority of Libyans support the US and favored last year’s NATO intervention: 54 percent of the Libyans polled approve of America’s international job performance and 75% said they had favored NATO support in 2011 against Kaddafi. Libyans were also supportive of the UK and the EU at slightly lower percentages. The Libyan naysayers were far smaller in number but clearly the new government has not yet done enough to disarm and quell the actions of the most radical of them.
In contrast, only 14 percent of Algerians and 12% of Egyptians supported the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya and the disapproval in these and other Muslim majority countries is far more indicative of the Islamic world as a whole. This suggests that the US will continue to face strong headwinds from Morocco to Mindanao in the years to come.
There may be no good answers: situations vary across countries and through time. But the US needs to rethink its policies and personnel to adjust to the ever changing realities. The region is far too important for the world’s strongest global power to abandon: if nothing more, we simply have too many economic interests to walk away – as some of this country’s right wing fringe would like.
This is why Pickering’s inquiry is crucial. The US was apparently again caught flat-footed. This needs to change.