Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H. Kushlis

As the tragic news trickled – then flooded – out of Benghazi
last week in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US Mission in Benghazi
(it has yet to receive Consulate status), circumstances surrounding the burning
of that building and the deaths of the four American employees including US Ambassador
Chris Stevens raise multiple questions in need answers. 

On September 20, Hillary Clinton announced the creation of an
Accountability Review Board to look into what happened
. Her announcement came
none too soon.  The board’s inquiry is to
be chaired by Thomas Pickering a veteran diplomat and former Under Secretary of
State.  Pickering is smart, respected and
an excellent choice. The panel will be operating under a law passed in 1986 intended to strengthen security at American diplomatic missions.

But where’s the line between adequate
security and need for US diplomats to have decent access to people in the
countries where our installations are located?  I think this balance still needs to be found. Pickering
of all people must understand the dilemma but our massive security apparatus which
has mushroomed since 9/11 and especially State’s Office of Overseas Buildings
(OBO) and Diplomatic Security (D/S) also need to recognize that one size does
not fit all.   

So many questions, so
few answers

If I were a member of Pickering’s inquiry, here are some of
the questions – listed in no particular order – I would ask.

How and why was Ambassador Chris Stevens
separated from his security detail? 

Why were other Mission employees safely escorted
to a second building occupied by the Mission (later attacked by the militants) but
the Ambassador allowed to remain in the main one – apparently locked in a safe
room? Since when are US Ambassadors expected to “go down with the ship?” Who
was in charge of the Benghazi Mission anyway when all this happened? What were
the instructions from Washington as how to handle worst case scenarios of this
sort – or were there none and did State react too late? What happened to
personal security precautions and training that all US Mission employees should
have received prior to arrival and during their assignments in Libya?  Did they all go up in the fire’s smoke – in something
akin to the fog of war?

Why did the Ambassador go to Benghazi on September
11?  Was the trip so time-sensitive that
it could not have been postponed for a few days or was the business so
important that it needed the Ambassador’s presence?  Right then? 
Was American intelligence so dense that the possibility of something untoward
happening on an auspicious anniversary was not a determining factor – even if
the intelligence “chatter” did not indicate a blow-up in the offing as is
claimed?  And if it didn’t, why not? Putting
aside a terrible video which may have been the spark, days of remembrance are
important in the Muslim world – just as Christmas and Easter are sacred to
Christians. Militant Sunni Islamists will neither forget their “triumph” on
9/11/2001 nor America’s killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.  Did no one think of this – including Arab
specialist Stevens – before his embarking on what turned out to be this
perilous last journey?

What was the Benghazi security chief thinking
when he appeared to downplay the actions of the militants which he publically claimed
were likely in response to the now infamous You-Tube video produced and uploaded
by a couple of anti-Muslim provocateurs in the US (it is no longer available
for viewing here) that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed so pejoratively as to set
off anti-American demonstrations and worse from Tunis to Jakarta when it was
picked up and broadcast by mainstream media in the Muslim world?

 Why does
the US have an official presence in Benghazi? 
What is the building’s primary purpose?  
And why were US officials allowed to work in a facility with such poor
security and safety in a troubled city in the Muslim world this day and age?  I’m no fan of fortress embassies but how
important was this installation to US national interests and if it is significant
why wasn’t it better protected and why didn’t the US intelligence community not
know some kind of attack from local militias was in the offing?      

happened to the Ambassador’s body?  Was
it rescued by helpful Libyans and taken to a nearby hospital as reported by
Reuters or – as unauthenticated videos suggest – was it dragged through the
streets by crazed militants?  Or if not
the Ambassador’s body – does the early dragged-through-the-streets rumor have
any credence at all?

 Why did
the State Department take so long to release the names of two of the four
American employees killed?  I know – the
answer is that it took time to notify next of kin – but in this day and age of
instant communications it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did.  What was the hold up?      

How many other US facilities abroad are as
vulnerable to crazed mobs as the one in Benghazi
and why did it take the Libyan
government security forces so long to act? After all, diplomatic institutions
and their occupants rely ultimately upon the security of the host country and
the Libyan government – unlike Tehran in 1979 – does not support fanatical
Islamists. Neither do the majority of Libyans.

The attacks began at 9:30 pm.  If the US Ambassador chose to sleep in the
building overnight – and I’m not sure whether this was necessary or even
advisable – why was he so lightly guarded? 

The war for the heart of Islam is
far from over.  It rages across
continents. It bisects and trisects ethnic groups and tribes. It challenges the
post-colonial order; yet few Muslims are militants – for the vast majority,
jihad means the struggle within oneself although many Muslims remain
anti-western and critical of US policies in the Middle East.

Their frustrations have three elements:  1) decades of US support for secular military
dictators who gained power and imposed their wills on the populations when the
colonial powers left after World War II; 2) US fealty to Israel and its
policies – especially Netanyahu’s no-holes-barred Greater Israel – whether or
not Israeli policies really support American national interests; and 3) a
population boom that has resulted in huge pools of poorly educated and underemployed
young men who see only a bleak future because their own society’s institutions
have failed them. This latter reason, after all, is what set off the Arab
Spring in a Tunisian market December 2010 in the first place.

Yet of all Muslim
majority countries, Libyans today are by far the most supportive of the US

pro-government, pro-Ambassador Stevens and anti-militias rally in Benghazi
which drew, according to The New York Times, an estimated 30,000 demonstrators

is such an example.

This corroborates with the results of a Gallup poll taken last spring and
released in August
that indicates that a majority of Libyans support the US and
favored last year’s NATO intervention: 54 percent of the Libyans polled approve
of America’s international job performance and 75% said they had favored NATO
support in 2011 against Kaddafi. Libyans were also supportive of the UK and the
EU at slightly lower percentages.  The
Libyan naysayers were far smaller in number but clearly the new government has
not yet done enough to disarm and quell the actions of the most radical of them.

In contrast, only 14 percent of Algerians and 12% of
Egyptians supported the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya and the
disapproval in these and other Muslim majority countries is far more indicative
of the Islamic world as a whole. 
suggests that the US will continue to face strong headwinds from Morocco to Mindanao in the years to come. 

There may be no good answers:  situations vary across countries and through time.  But the US needs to rethink its policies and
personnel to adjust to the ever changing realities. 
The region is far too important for the world’s strongest global power
to abandon:  if nothing more, we simply
have too many economic interests to walk away – as some of this country’s right
wing fringe would like. 

This is why Pickering’s inquiry is crucial.  The US was apparently again caught flat-footed.  This needs to change.