Nine months after the terrorist attack in Benghazi that cost four American lives, we’re finally finding out who it was that the State Department thinks is responsible for the debacle: the middle managers. Josh Rogin’s exclusive interview at the Daily Beast with the only person to lose his job over the tragedy doesn’t tell us much about why Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were left without security in the face of clear danger from an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it does tell us everything we need to know about how Hillary Clinton’s State Department functioned.
Benghazi is one of the worst disasters in American diplomatic history, but the sum total of accountability for it is limited to the career of Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) who was placed on administrative leave in December after the now-famous Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by Thomas Pickering issued its report. Pickering didn’t bother interviewing the person in charge of the department—Secretary Clinton—but according to Rogin’s sources, Maxwell was consigned to perdition for not reading his daily intelligence reports. If so, perhaps he deserves his fate even though Maxwell claims he had “no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” That is something that cannot be said of others, including the secretary, who sent Stevens on what proved to be a fatal mission. Yet what comes across loud and clear in the piece is that what happened at Foggy Bottom in the aftermath of the debacle was that a middle manager was made to walk the plank while all senior personnel were spared from the consequences of the mistakes that were made.
Democrats arrived at the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi terror attack determined to defend the reputation of the person that most believe will be their presidential candidate in 2016. Ranking member Elijah Cummings and his colleagues thundered at chair Darrel Issa and any other Republican who dared to raise questions about the way the State Department responded not only to the attack but also to questions about the aftermath, determined to cast the entire event as a partisan ambush. But the testimony of the three whistleblowers overshadowed their complaints about the necessity for the hearing or the spin being put on it by Republicans. While nothing said at the hearing was the “smoking gun” that some in the GOP suspect will eventually bring senior administration officials down because of the Libyan tragedy, enough questions were raised to keep the fires stoked on the issue for the foreseeable future.
Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans are going to be wondering about what senior diplomat Gregory Hicks told the committee about requests for military assistance on the night of the attack, the disconnect between the false story about the murders being a response to an anti-Islamic film and what he and others on the scene told Washington, and why he was told not to cooperate with the House committee. If Clinton thought she had put these issues to rest in January when she railed at senators inquiring about Benghazi asking, “What difference does it make?” who killed the Americans and why, the whistleblowers have ensured that Congress will keep pushing until they get the answers to these questions.
At Friday’s State Department press conference, spokesman Mark Toner was asked again about the U.S. commitment to get Israel involved in the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which will be meeting again on December 13 without Israel. Reporter Matt Lee asked Toner “what exactly the Administration has done … since the last [GCTF] meeting, when you all said that you were going to try to get [Israel] included in this group, or at least some of this group’s work.”
Toner responded that “we’ve succeeded and agreed with our partners in the GCTF to have this issue as a formal agenda item on the – at the December 13 meeting.” That produced this colloquy:
My colleague Danielle Pletka alerted me to this article, which truly is a rare good news story out of Pakistan:
Rafiullah Kakar, 23, is all set to live “a dream come true”. He is the 2013 Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan… Kakar does not belong to a feudal family. He grew up in one of the most hostile and backward regions of Pakistan and no one had gone to college in his family before him. His transformation from a boy who did not learn Urdu until the seventh grade to a Rhodes Scholar is a story of hard work, family support, perseverance and the pursuit of personal ambition.
The whole news report is worth reading. Baluchistan is one of the most backward areas of Pakistan and Iran (for history buffs, about five years ago I did a thumbnail history of Baluchistan, here), and Pakistan is a society where elite and family connections often trump talent. American politicians may quip that it takes a village, but government alone will never supplant hard work and individual aptitude, nor does progress occur when it dampens rather than promotes rewards inherent in personal ambition.
Lost in all the speculation about the next secretary of state is the degree to which Foggy Bottom will need someone who can put the pieces back together. While Hillary Clinton coasted for much of her term on the good press that comes with being a Clinton, until the last couple of months she was having a decidedly average run as secretary of state. But the Benghazi debacle–which was in large part the result of Clinton’s incompetence and lack of attention–followed by the expected defection of most of our European allies at the UN vote on the Palestinians today, reveals a State Department marked by ineptitude and surprising irrelevance.
To be sure, as the New York Times has thoroughly documented, diplomacy has always been one of President Obama’s more glaring weaknesses. But the well funded, high-profile State Department’s mission is to be the public face of American diplomacy, and should at least be able to keep the support of our allies. But the reported decision by Germany, France, Italy, and Britain to abandon the U.S., Canada, and Israel at the UN today left Israeli diplomats proclaiming: “We lost Europe”–to say nothing of Washington’s inability to prevent Mahmoud Abbas from going forward with this stunt in the first place:
Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.
Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.
This is nothing short of disastrous for President Obama. After dodging responsibility for the Benghazi attack for over a month, pointing fingers at everything from the State Department to the intelligence community, the White House is outclassed by…Hillary Clinton. By taking the blame now, Hillary effectively 1.) Undermined Obama’s leadership, 2.) Put pressure on him right before a major debate to take the heat:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday tried to douse a political firestorm around the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, saying she is responsible for the security of American diplomatic outposts.
“I take responsibility” for the protection of U.S. diplomats Clinton said during a visit to Peru. But she said an investigation now under way will ultimately determine what happened in the attack that left four Americans dead. …
Clinton said President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are not involved in security decisions.
“I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she added, noting that it is close to the election.
This puts Obama in an incredibly uncomfortable position.
Obama administration officials have denied there were security breakdowns at the Benghazi consulate, with UN Ambassador Susan Rice citing the two former Navy SEALs killed in the attack, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, as part of the “substantial security presence” at the compound. But the Washington Guardian reports today that Woods and Doherty were not part of the official security detail:
The officials provided the information to the Washington Guardian, saying they feared the Obama administration’s scant description of the episode left a misimpression that the two ex-Navy SEALs might have been responsible for the ambassador’s personal safety or become separated from him.
“Woods and Doherty weren’t part of the detail, nor were they personally responsible for the ambassador’s security, but they stepped into the breach when the attacks occurred and their actions saved others lives — and they shouldn’t be lumped in with the security detail,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the State Department. …
In fact, officials said, the two men were personal service contractors whose official function was described as “embassy security,” but whose work did not involve personal protection of the ambassador or perimeter security of the compound.
The attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi have sparked a debate in Congress about the efficacy and wisdom of foreign aid in both Egypt and Libya, and more broadly throughout the region; some congressmen are already calling for stripping aid to Egypt and Libya. Aid and assistance have their purpose but, against the backdrop of a severe financial situation at home and a looming threat that sequestration could decimate defense, the State Department and the larger aid community do themselves no good when, on a day of mourning, they prioritize this:
Today is the first-ever Global Female Condom Day, and women and men around the world are celebrating. They’re also speaking out for increased recognition of a prevention method that is too often overlooked… One new type of female condom is the Woman’s Condom, developed in part with funding from PEPFAR through USAID. PATH, CONRAD, and our research partners in several countries developed the Woman’s Condom using feedback from women and their partners. Their input helped us design a female condom that’s easy to insert, secure during use, and comfortable for both partners. Through our Protection Options for Women Product Development Partnership, we are now working to bring the Woman’s Condom to market in China and sub-Saharan Africa.
At Thursday’s State Department press conference — the day after President Obama directed the Democratic Party to re-instate in its platform the words “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” — a reporter asked acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell which city the U.S. recognizes as the capital of Israel. Mr. Ventrell responded as follows:
Well, as you know, longstanding Administration policy, both in this Administration and in previous administrations across both parties, is that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. So that’s longstanding Administration policy and continues to be so.
That response produced several more tries by reporters (“I mean, no city is recognized as a capital by the U.S. Government?” “That means Jerusalem is not a part of Israel?” “Are there any other countries in the world where the U.S. doesn’t know what the capital is or won’t say what the capital of a country is?”) — each of which produced the same non-response from Ventrell. Another reporter tried a fifth time, and this time the colloquy was more pointed:
Jeffrey Feltman did a stellar job as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008. While many career ambassadors embrace moral neutrality against the backdrop of political crisis, Feltman stepped up to the plate during the Cedar Revolution and helped give the Lebanese a real shot at affirming their freedom and independence from Syrian domination. Alas, the March 14 movement was hopelessly divided and ineffective. After Feltman left, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed the Doha Agreement which enabled Hezbollah to reassert its control, and effectively end the Cedar Revolution.
President Obama’s election was a mixed blessing for Feltman. On one hand, he received a nice promotion and became the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs but, on the other hand, Obama used him as his point man for his silly and misguided strategy to flip Syria and normalize ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered a reformer.
Back in May, I wrote about how President Obama had his name dropped into the official White House online biographies of other presidents going back to Calvin Coolidge, to attempt to share credit for their accomplishments. The Heritage Foundation’s Rory Cooper was the first to notice the changes when he saw the administration’s added note to Ronald Reagan’s biography in order to misrepresent Reagan’s tax plan as basically his own, which was quite far from reality.
Then a week ago, Jim Roberts, who works for Heritage and the Wall Street Journal on the jointly produced Index of Economic Freedom, noticed another oddity: the Obama State Department has been removing the comprehensive “background notes” on other countries in favor of brief, far less informative, descriptions of the countries’ relationships with the Obama administration. Roberts, who has worked for the State Department writing background notes in the past, said he was in the process of going through this latest messianic presidential prank-on-history, and has published this morning at the Wall Street Journal what he found.
Here’s a pretty gruesome story from Pakistan that began circulating yesterday:
At least 11 nurses, including three Christians, were poisoned at Civil Hospital Karachi for eating during Ramadan. During their afternoon break yesterday, the 11 nurses went to the hostel cafeteria for some tea and food. Rita, a Catholic nurse, collapsed first after drinking her tea. Now all the nurses are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, some in very serious conditions.
It was an appropriate day, then, for the State Department to publish its 2011 report on religious freedom around the globe. And the bottom line is that, throughout the Islamic world, as well as in the unreconstructed communist and authoritarian states, there’s precious little of it.
What kind of ranking does religious freedom hold in the conduct of American foreign policy? As of this morning, the State Department’s website had on prominent display the following declaration from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “For the United States, religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.” No room for misinterpretation there, then.
Yesterday — for the third time this week — AP reporter Matt Lee asked the State Department spokesperson what the U.S. had done to meet its June 8 commitment to include Israel in the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which the U.S. established and co-chairs.
Monday, the spokesman said he was unfamiliar with the issue; Tuesday, he was unable to provide any details; yesterday, Lee pitched the question again:
QUESTION: So I’m led to believe that you have an answer to my question about Israel and the Global Counterterrorism Cooperation Forum or whatever it’s called?
MR. VENTRELL: I do, Matt.
MR. VENTRELL: We believe that Israel would make a valuable contribution to the Global Counterterrorism Forum. We have raised the issue of Israeli participation in relevant GCTF activities with a number of GCTF partners at very senior levels. We will continue to do so as we move forward. Our discussion with Israel concerning the GCTF – our discussions have focused on Israeli participation and relevant activities to allow Israel to share its counterterrorism expertise with CT practitioners from GCTF-member and other countries.
The State Department struggled again yesterday to explain why — a month after the U.S. committed itself to having Israel included in the “Global Counterterrorism Forum” (which Secretary Clinton formed last year and which the U.S. co-chairs with Turkey) — Israel was excluded from the Monday conference of the Forum, which 29 other nations attended.
Asked about this by A.P. reporter Matt Lee the day before yesterday, the State Department spokesperson pled ignorance, but said he would look into it. Yesterday, Lee returned to the subject:
QUESTION: … going back to the question I raised yesterday about the Global Counterterrorism Forum … did you get an answer on that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, as we said at the time, Matt, that our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, frontline states, and emerging powers to develop a more robust yet representative counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience counting and – countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF’s founding members. We’ve discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel and its activities on a number of occasions, and we’re committed to making this happen. [Emphasis added].
QUESTION: Okay. That last line is exactly what was in the taken question from, I believe, June 8. Can you say –
MR. VENTRELL: And that’s exactly where we are today.
QUESTION: Okay. What was done between then and this last meeting, which was just yesterday? … I’m just wondering what did the CT Bureau or whoever’s in charge of this do in the interim to get Israel included?
MR. VENTRELL: We continued to discuss it with the GCTF. …
QUESTION: Well, I mean, I’d just like to know what you did in the interim between June 8 and July 9 to work on this, on your commitment to getting Israel involved.
MR. VENTRELL: I imagine it was raised at a number of different levels, but let me check for you, Matt, and get back to you.
Hopefully Matt Lee will return to the subject once again in today’s press conference, and hopefully the Department spokesperson will have a more informative answer than “I imagine it was raised at a number of different levels.”
Jeff Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War–one of the best Afghanistan analysts out there–has an excellent question in this Weekly Standard article: Why hasn’t the administration designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization?
There is no legitimate reason to avoid this designation for a group that, according to the testimony of administration officials, has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Once it is designated, that will allow the U.S. and other governments to more actively go after its finances, leaders, and supporters. It appeared that designation–which is favored by both U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–was a done deal last year, but it still hasn’t happened, apparently because the State Department wants to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis.
Though it seems like a long time ago, one of the most astonishing feats in modern American political history was how Barack Obama came from nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The historic nature of the Obama presidency has shaped our view of that contest to the extent that in retrospect it now seems inconceivable that almost everyone believed Clinton was the inevitable nominee. A reminder of why the former First Lady and senator didn’t have what it took to beat Obama comes through in a highly flattering profile of the secretary of state in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Though the piece by the Times’s State Department correspondent Steven Lee Myers is more of a public mash note than anything else, it still manages to remind us that though she may be a “rock star diplomat,” the main narrative of this administration’s foreign policy must speak of how Clinton has been steamrollered time and again on policy disputes just as she was during the 2008 campaign.
Myers opens with the account of how Clinton helped secure the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, which was certainly a neat bit of diplomacy on the secretary’s part. But this one tiny victory highlights the fact that Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom have actually been short on achievements despite the adoring press coverage she continues to receive. Her work on the Middle East peace process, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the comical Russian “reset” has been a record of consistent failure. Just as important, as even Myers is forced to admit, Clinton has been more of a “Girl Scout” than a genuine leader within the administration, as she has been overridden on Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and most human rights controversies by the president and his foreign policy advisers.
The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has been doing yeoman’s work covering Senator Mark Kirk’s efforts to force the State Department to define Palestinian refugees in the same manner that the international community defines non-Palestinian refugees.
The problem about definitions exists because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applies one definition of refugees around the world, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) applies a different definition only to Palestinian refugees. The State Department sides with UNRWA. In a 2006 article, University of Illinois economist Fred Gottheil explained the difference between the UNHCR and UNRWA approach:
The refugee population that UNHCR serves, at any time, is the number who fled their homelands minus those refugees repatriated or resettled. Because there was virtually no repatriation or resettlement among UNRWA’s refugee population, its size includes not only those who fled their homes but also during the course of over a half-century and in considerably larger numbers their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, regardless of where and under what social, political, and economic conditions they live. Another distinction between UNRWA and UNHCR on population counts is this: Palestinians who had fled their homes from one location within Palestine to another location within Palestine – say, from a village in what became Israel to a location in the West Bank – are nonetheless defined by UNRWA as refugees, even though they had not fled their homeland. By UNHCR reckoning, they are not refugees. And counted as well among the Palestinian refugees are descendants of refugees born, raised, and living elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, who, never having seen the Palestinian homeland, are free nonetheless to return to it and to live there permanently but choose not to do so. Their decision to reject repatriation to the Palestinian homeland had nothing to do with the principles of non-refoulement since persecution of returnees was at no time a perceived threat. They do not satisfy UNHCR’s definition of refugee.
It was only last month when the State Department was acknowledging that Israel is “one of NATO’s partners [and] has participated over the years in many, many, many NATO activities, consultations, exercises, et cetera.” The context was a surreal exchange between the AP’s Matt Lee and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland regarding how Turkey was vetoing Israel from participating in this week’s Chicago NATO summit. Lee expressed confusion at the bland acquiescence with which the Obama administration was meeting Turkey’s machinations:
QUESTION: Toria, I’m trying to help you out here, because you’re going to get absolutely slammed.
MS. NULAND: I understand. Matt, there is no –
QUESTION: You are. If you can’t come out and say that the United States wants Israel to participate, its main ally in the Middle East and you won’t come out and say that the administration wants them to participate in whatever event is going on in Chicago, that’s – that is going to be seized on.
QUESTION: Fair enough. But the Turks wouldn’t be objecting to Israel’s participation if someone hadn’t proposed that Israel participate. And if you have proposed that they participate –
MS. NULAND: Again –
QUESTION: — and you’re not willing to stick up for it, I don’t understand why.
No one should be surprised to read that the State Department’s ambitious program to train Iraqi police is being dramatically slashed and could be ended before long. The Iraqis turn out not to want the “training” that the State Department is offering. And why should they, given that the State program consists of paying moonlighting cops from the U.S. to give PowerPoint presentations on American facilities in Iraq?
Effective advising requires advisers who have some area expertise and are willing to go off base to work closely with the units they are mentoring in the field. But this, of course, is not allowed under the State Department’s notoriously restrictive security rules. The ability of American officials to move around Iraq at all has been drastically curtailed since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of last year. The State Department claimed they could fill the gap left by the men and women in uniform by hiring a small army of 16,000 contractors. But now it seems that State can’t even keep its embassy supplied with food. The entire U.S. presence is being slashed dramatically, and the police training program–which was supposed to be the centerpiece of a continuing commitment to Iraq–is one of many casualties of the handover to civilian authority.