George Washington’s Benghazi blues

"Petty carping," such as critics obsession with State Department email over Benghazi embassy attack is worst response in a national crisis.

By ELIZABETH COBBS HOFFMAN
May 26, 2013 23:15
4 minute read.
US Consulate in Benghazi in flames during protest

US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in flames 370. (photo credit: reuters)

 
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Good thing George Washington didn’t have to worry about email in 1776.

Political opponents made the leader of the American Revolution’s life miserable enough (and the war harder to fight) by blaming him for lost forts and agonizing retreats. Some schemed to oust the “weak” Virginian who almost “ruined” his country. Leaders of Congress for a time preferred Horatio Gates, the weaselly and opportunistic victor of the Battle of Saratoga.

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Today, the American Congress is once again making a scandal out of something that isn’t one, diverting attention from real problems and undermining the efficacy of the commander-in-chief. Critics’ obsession with State Department emails about the September 2012 attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi, and the media’s parsing of President Barack Obama’s every word, should remind us that petty carping is the worst response in a national crisis. A Washington Post blog criticized President Obama last week for having called the Benghazi attack “an act of terror,” not an “act of terrorism.”

Did I say petty? America’s history since World War II is replete with examples of breached security and violent assaults: Pearl Harbor in 1941, the kidnapping of US ambassador to Brazil Charles Elbrick in 1969, the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979, the Beirut Embassy Bombing in 1983, the Oklahoma City car-bombing of 1995, and the destruction of the World Trade Towers in 2001, to name some of the most infamous.

From Roosevelt to Reagan, from Bush to Obama, American presidents (like Israeli prime ministers) have coped with threats no one saw coming, from sources they struggled to identify. Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz first identified the “fog” of war, which “gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance” and makes “all data” uncertain.

Under Ronald Reagan, a Republican president strong on national security, terrorists assaulted American compounds in Lebanon three times. The first attack in Beirut killed 63 people in April 1983, including CIA station chief Kenneth Haas. The second attack six months later killed 241 servicemen at the US Marine Barracks.

The third attack a year after that killed 24 people and destroyed an embassy building open only six months. No one made these events into partisan “scandals.”

Nor should they have. President Reagan was no more to blame then than President Obama is now.

Enemies spend countless hours studying how to get through the proverbial hole in the fence, and some do. Reagan’s own security was breached in 1981, when John Hinckley Jr. shot the president and three others, one of them disabled for life.

After the first Beirut bombing, three terrorist organizations claimed credit. Ambassador Robert Dillon said it was not initially clear who engineered the assault that blew him across the room, or why. Experts in Washington later decided that Hezbollah was “essentially” at fault.

Nonetheless, within a few hours, Dillon stood in front of smoking ruins with a piece of paper someone placed in his hands so he would have something to say to journalists.

“My concern was... finding of the survivors, but from the point of view of the United States it was important that the media be addressed with dignity and a display of courage, even if a little false,” Dillon later admitted.


In the 1980s, one person jotted talking points on the spot. There weren’t 15 iterations of email by committee, as there were in 2012. Yet officials acting in the days immediately following a crisis will never get everything “right,” nor should citizens expect more than first approximations of what went wrong and who was responsible.

It’s the job of spokespeople to present a brave face. It’s the job of professional analysts, including designated government investigators and private journalists, to flesh out the full story – though fog may always obscure some information.

Today’s partisan accusations that the administration “covered up” what it half-knew define carping.

Critics wildly assert that Obama knew within 72 hours that the Benghazi attack was planned, rather than spontaneous, and changed the initial report to the public to evade responsibility for a breach of security on the eve of election. But Obama’s recent release of the relevant emails confirms that the administration’s initial guess never varied: “Currently available information” suggested that the attacks “were spontaneously inspired by the protests the US Embassy in Cairo.” Security was breached, period.

We still do not know exactly who planned the attacks or their precise relationship to al-Qaida, and the criminal investigation remains underway.

Blame-minded Republicans in the US Congress might look in the mirror. As national security expert Amy Zegart commented in her recent book, Eyes on Spies, the executive branch under both Bush and Obama has worked feverishly to improve performance, but “Congress is another story” because of its endemic turf battles and obsession with re-election.

Lee Hamilton, co-chair of President Bush’s 9/11 Commission, told Congress straight up in 2007, “the Senate... and House of the United States is not doing its job.”

Biographers credit George Washington for his dogged refusal to give up despite nearly constant attacks on his character. Washington certainly understood that not every reversal of fortune could be laid at the door of incompetent or self-interested leaders in the field.

One wishes the American Congress did.

The writer is the author of American Umpire from Harvard University Press, and a National

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