Clinton on Benghazi

by Benjamin Studebaker

The last time I mentioned the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi was November. Since that time, republicans have continued to call into question the administration’s response to the incident, accusing them of having covered up the fact that the attack on the embassy was an assault by extremists rather than, as was initially believed, a spontaneous outgrowth of a protest against an anti-Islamic video. One of the primary casualties of this ongoing discussion was Susan Rice‘s bid to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Now, Hillary Clinton has taken the stand to defend the actions of the state department to congress. Her response was sufficiently interest that I decided, one last time, to make the Benghazi incident the focal point of a post.

Firstly, what did Hillary Clinton say? Here’s the clip:

Most importantly, there is this bit, said by Clinton in response to Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI)’s continued claim that her department covered up knowledge that the attack did not spring from a protest:

With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator. Honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is people were trying their best in real time to get to the best information. Give me a break, Senator Johnson. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.

This hits on something important that has not really been addressed with regard to the Benghazi attack–what motivation would the state department have had for covering up the fact that the attack was not born of a protest was but instead a deliberate assault? Even were we to know that the state department did cover this up, what difference would it make? How is our foreign policy more adversely affected, how does the administration look worse, if the attack comes in the form of an assault rather than a protest gone wrong?

This is not Watergate here. The question is not “did the president order his goons to ransack the offices of his political enemies and/or protect them afterwards”. It’s “did the Libyan embassy get attacked for reason X or for reason Y”. I do not recall the republicans being particularly interested in the reasoning of terrorists, in what motivates them and what we might do to demotivate them. As I recall, the republican explanation for terrorism is “they hate our freedom”. Whether it’s our freedom to make offensive videos or some other freedom in particular surely does not significantly change the discussion. Terrorists are bad guys who kill our good guys and we try to stop them, or so the narrative goes.

Do the republicans think that somehow the distinction is large enough to make the difference between calling this a terrorist attack as opposed to spontaneous violence? For the sake of argument, let’s grant this point. Protesters attacking your embassy isn’t a terrorist attack; extremists assaulting it is. Does making Benghazi a terrorist attack hurt the Obama administration more in any significant way? I do not see why it should. After all, if this counts as a terrorist attack, the claim made by the Bush administration that the United States suffered “no terrorist attacks since 9/11” would not really be true. Under Bush, the following US embassies were attacked:

  • Pakistan–4 times, 3 of which succeeded. 1 American killed, 17 Pakistanis killed, 87 Pakistanis injured.
  • Uzbekistan–1 time, successful, 2 Uzbeks killed
  • Saudi Arabia–1 time, successful, 1 Yemeni, 1 Sudanese, 1 Filipino, 1 Sri Lankan killed, 10 people of undescribed nationality injured
  • Syria–1 time, failed, 1 Syrian guard killed
  • Greece–1 time, failed, no fatalities
  • Serbia–1 time, successful, embassy burned, no fatalities
  • Turkey–1 time, failed, 3 Turks killed, 1 Turk injured
  • Yemen–1 time, successful, 13 Yemenis killed, 16 Yemenis injured

That’s a total of 11 embassy attacks during George W. Bush’s presidency, an average of 5.5 per term. To date, Barack Obama has endured 6 attacks, most of which happened in countries experiencing Arab Spring revolutions (as was the case with this Libyan attack). They are on pace for about the same number. The only significant difference between the embassy attacks Obama has endured and those that occurred during the Bush administration is the number of American fatalities. But do republicans really expect the American people to hold the administration responsible for those 4 deaths in any way more seriously than they held the Bush administration responsible for the various Americans killed in the Middle East in the Afghan and Iraq Wars? Many more American diplomatic personnel died in those conflicts.

The trouble with the Benghazi argument runs deeper still–it is just not sensible to blame a government for attacks on its embassies and consulates. Why? Because, let’s face it–the United States is going to have embassies and consulates in countries in which it is presently not popular. How many American soldiers and security personnel are to be diverted to the task of protecting these outposts? No matter how many you deploy, if there are enough people ticked off at this country, they will always be outnumbered. Americans cannot, by themselves, defend American embassies and consulates. Full stop.

It is for precisely this reason that international treaties hold receiving countries–not sending countries–responsible for bad things that happen to the diplomats, embassies, and consulates of said sending countries. There’s an international agreement called the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This document puts the blame for attacks on diplomatic posts solely on the host country. As per Article 22:

The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

It is the Libyan government, not the American government, that failed to do this.

When you agree to host a nation’s embassy or consulate, you agree to defend that embassy or consulate and the foreign dignitaries that work there. Could the United States have sent piles of US troops to guard the embassy in Benghazi? Perhaps, but was it legally or morally obliged to? Not in the slightest. It was the job of the Libyan government to look after the Americans it agreed to host. So why is the American Secretary of State on the stand? There is no common sense national interest reason to blame the state department. It has a mere 11,500 foreign service agents in the field manning posts in well over 100 countries, and most of those employees are not security personnel, nor should they be. The overwhelming majority of the time, the nations that host them do a good job of protecting them, and people don’t get killed. The Libyan government is just not competent–not only did it fail to protect Chris Stevens from the people who wanted him dead, it also failed to prevent the streaming of weapons and mercenaries into Mali, sparking that conflict as well.

So why the continued hullabaloo from the right? The Republican Party is prepared to make any accusation, no matter how ridiculous, if they believe doing so might damage the administration. Their willingness to do so when there is no national interest reason for doing so discredits them and, for those of us who reason about such things, makes them less persuasive next time.