SETH MANDEL: Benghazi Report Makes Clear Clinton’s Failure–and Obama’s

Since the terrorist attack in Benghazi killed our ambassador there and three others, I’ve been asking just how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has managed to avoid accountability for what was clearly her State Department’s failure. Others have begun asking that same question, including former Clinton administration official Aaron David Miller. Miller offered a few possible answers, one of which was that her expected run for the presidency in 2016–which is already in motion–has convinced the Washington establishment to stay on her good side.

Miller was asking the question in the context of the strangely effusive praise she has been receiving for her work as secretary of state, even though she has been surely unremarkable–and that was before the debacle in Benghazi (and, I would add, Foggy Bottom’s failure with regard to the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN). It’s possible that Miller is right–that most people don’t actually believe what they’re saying about Clinton, but are simply speaking flattery to power. But yesterday’s release of the inquiry into Benghazi should inspire at least some honesty about Clinton’s manifest failure there. It also explains why Republicans have latched on to Benghazi with such force: as the report shows, the tragedy in Benghazi was evidence of the failure of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy across the administration.

As the report makes clear, there is a serious management problem at the State Department:

Communication, cooperation, and coordination among Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi functioned collegially at the working-level but were constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels. Among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations.

The report also knocks the State Department for not responding appropriately to requests for more security in Libya, and for needing those requests in the first place. The report wonders why the State Department’s decision makers didn’t understand the situation on the ground, and goes on to name 20 separate instances of violence or attempted violence against foreign missions and NGOs in the six months leading up to the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

So Clinton was detached and ill-informed about the mission to an inexcusable degree. But President Obama himself shares some of the blame. After all, as the report notes, Libya was in a state of lawlessness for a reason:

It is worth noting that the events above took place against a general backdrop of political violence, assassinations targeting former regime officials, lawlessness, and an overarching absence of central government authority in eastern Libya. While the June 6 IED at the SMC and the May ICRC attack were claimed by the same group, none of the remaining attacks were viewed in Tripoli and Benghazi as linked or having common perpetrators, which were not viewed as linked or having common perpetrators. This also tempered reactions in Washington. Furthermore, the Board believes that the longer a post is exposed to continuing high levels of violence the more it comes to consider security incidents which might otherwise provoke a reaction as normal, thus raising the threshold for an incident to cause a reassessment of risk and mission continuation. This was true for both people on the ground serving in Libya and in Washington.

Behold the product of “leading from behind,” the Obama administration’s light-touch approach to foreign intervention. The Libya mission left a decapitated country in the midst of civil war descending into anarchy ruled by gang-led violence. The Obama administration chose to wash its hands of the ordeal when Muammar Gaddafi was gone. It was into this chaos that Clinton sent our ambassador with insufficient protection.

The report also finds fault with the intelligence establishment, though former CIA Director David Petraeus has already resigned and thus won’t be held doubly responsible for what happened. Max has also noted the confused and clumsy military response to the attack as well.

The harsh Republican response to Benghazi, then, was not just about Susan Rice and her talking points (though that was an issue for them as well, certainly), but about the broader strategic and management failures across all relevant departments of the Obama administration, and the pitfalls of the “leading from behind” strategy of military engagement.

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