Star Tribune

Opinion

Benghazi and diplomats' dangerous work

Partisan Benghazi campaign is a disservice to slain diplomats and their colleagues.

Article by: Dick Virden

Updated: May 9, 2013 - 10:11 PM

Counterpoint

Here we go again. John Kass (“Remember Benghazi, and demand answers,” May 7) joins the chorus of Republican politicians and media rabble-rousers suggesting that this tragic incident proves the Obama administration is soft on terrorism, indifferent to the fate of the slain Americans, incompetent and engaged in a coverup of a scandal to rival Watergate.

Never mind that it was the Obama administration that tracked Osama bin Laden down to the ends of the Earth. What makes this cacophony more than mildly irritating is that it’s cloaked in such obvious hypocrisy.

What is portrayed as concern for our slain ambassador and three other American officials is in reality a blatant effort to exploit the Benghazi attack for partisan political advantage. This offensive campaign is a disservice to the diplomats who died in Libya and to their colleagues everywhere.

One of my Foreign Service classmates, Robert Little, was killed by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam in 1968. Another friend and colleague, Alfred Laun, was badly wounded when resisting a kidnapping attempt in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1974. Still another close friend, John Reid, was injured by the bomb that blew up the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, killing 52 Americans and wounding more than 100 other embassy employees.

Three Thais with whom I’d worked closely in the U.S. consulate in Chiang Mai in the late ’60s were shot and killed by communist terrorists in 1970 while leading a mobile information team to a remote mountainous region near the Thai-Lao border.

Nearly every Foreign Service officer has such stories. We all know that American officials are targets and that, no matter how hard we try, how much we spend, how many precautions we take, security can never be airtight nor guaranteed. It is the nature of the beast.

Our diplomats balance the demands of safety with the need to be out in the society to do their jobs. You cannot sort out who’s who among contending forces, or what makes them tick, by riding around in motorcades or holing up in a bunker.

Ambassador Chris Stevens knew the risks, but he went to a dangerous area anyway, because he felt he had to be on the Arab street to understand what was happening there.

It’s easy for armchair generals to say now that his security protection was inadequate. Sure, but how much protection would have been enough? And could the ambassador have had useful discussions with ragtag rebels in Benghazi’s shadows while guarded by a company of Marines and a squadron of fighter jets?

What happened that night in Benghazi has been the subject of heated, partisan debate ever since. Critics jumped all over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for not calling the bloody attacks terrorism from the beginning and for observing that they appeared to grow out of protests against an American-made anti-Mohammed film. It turns out that while there were indeed such protests at that time in many Arab cities, Benghazi was not one of them. Rice was wrong to assume there was a link; her mistake would ultimately cost her any chance of becoming secretary of state.

The Benghazi crusaders go further, portraying statements by Rice and other administration spokespersons as part of a deliberate effort to mislead the American people. They’ve offered no convincing evidence to back up such a serious charge, only innuendo and shrill grandstanding.

Nor has any plausible reason been given why the administration would try to disguise the facts. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commissioned an independent inquiry into what happened and accepted every one of its findings and recommendations.

Those who see conspiracy in the chaos and confusion of that night in Benghazi overlook what Clausewitz called the “fog of war.” It is rarely immediately clear what’s going on. And that’s true whether you’re on the spot in Benghazi, 600 miles away in the embassy in Tripoli, or in American war rooms in Europe or Washington. Hindsight is not always 20/20, either; even today, it is difficult to see how U.S. military forces could have intervened in time and successfully, however desirable that might have been.

The continuing efforts to whip up sentiment about Benghazi obscure a clear-eyed analysis of what took place there and how to reduce the chances that it could happen again. If we truly care about the safety of our diplomats, that’s where the focus should be, not on the blame game.

Unfortunately, this week’s hearings in the Republican-controlled House produced still more partisan accusations; they ring especially hollow coming from the party that routinely denies sufficient funds to support our diplomats and development experts who work in troubled outposts like Benghazi.

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Dick Virden, of Plymouth, served 38 years in the Foreign Service before retiring in 2004. His last post was as deputy chief of mission in Brazil. He has taught national-security strategy to senior military and civilian officers at the National War College.

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