Center for Strategic Communication

One long, deadly night in an isolated outpost in a place few Americans could place on a map. A tragic turn of events and Americans dead. The headline could stand in for a dizzying number of places from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan. So why Benghazi? Why has it stuck in the spotlight while the others have not?

Partisanship is a big reason. Like many post-Bush security debates, it’s easier to point fingers when the other guy is sitting in the Oval Office. But this doesn’t really begin to get to the bottom of the puzzle. The public has evinced little interest in Benghazi. The political press has mostly forgotten about it. So why do DC insiders fight so heavily over it? And why is CNN claiming in its latest scoop that the “CIA is involved in what one source calls an
unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agency’s Benghazi secrets from
ever leaking out?”

Benghazi is the Banquo’s Ghost of the post-Bush counterterrorism wars, a lingering symbol of a dangerous flaw within a consensus national security policy that many in Washington have convinced themselves is the way to fight the wars of future while avoiding a heavy ground presence. To be sure, the Macbeth analogy here is not a one-to-one mapping. The “ghost” here is a metaphor for the lingering specter of the disaster, its dead, and what the torching of the consulate represents for the indirect strategy. Like Banquo, the specter lingers during what should be a feast and time of celebration. But a review of the strategic landscape in the so-called “arc of conflict” reveals little to celebrate.

To understand why, it’s important to briefly review some parts of the Benghazi affair that have mostly escaped attention in the political obsession with tactical marginalia.

First, as counterterrorism researcher Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recently noted on Twitter, optimistic predictions of Libyan stability now look more dubious in light of escalating political disorder. And it’s not just Libya. The fires are burning throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. What was once portrayed as purposeful American efforts to “lead from behind,” exercise “credible influence,” or deploy “smart power” in a region moving towards greater liberalism has now been revealed as tactical reaction to a new climate of steady instability.

Into such a cauldron, Joshua Foust notes, we inserted a heavily CIA-dominated mission whose ultimate purpose still is very much unknown. CNN and Business Insider have noted a possible connection to the supply of Syrian rebels, which may have provided an opportunity for militant groups to strike. Speculation about covert operations is fraught with problems of evidence and extrapolation, so we should be loath to assume this is necessarily the case. It will likely be a while before we understand the true purpose of the CIA’s presence in Benghazi.

What we do know, however, is that they could not either hide such a presence or properly protect it. Sayeth Foust:

So why was the CIA station’s location so well known in Benghazi? Was
tradecraft there so lax that everyone nearby knew what it was? And if
so, who thought that was a good idea? Again, none of these issues are being raised in Congressional hearings
or the media, or by the public. The CIA created the facility in Benghazi
but barely defended it. They did not have local forces capable of
rallying to their defense when they needed it and could not protect two
diplomats on whom their cover relied.

So the CIA and the State Department stuck their personnel out in post-civil war Libyan bandit country, involved them in activities that could likely draw the ire of the kind of heavily armed bandits known to inhabit said backwoods, and could neither hide their base of operations nor properly defend it. As we know from previous reports, reports of escalating insecurity and the unreliability of local forces were ignored. Worse yet, there were no in-extremis forces that could have been feasibly deployed. And even if we assume there were (we have incomplete information, after all), the response was bungled as the government struggled to balance Libyan response with the then-possible threat of further depradations to other US diplomatic installations in the region.

This mismatch of covert and diplomatic outreach with the ability to defend it, as Foust argues, is the real issue. And the issue is not going away. US embassies throughout the Muslim world are suddenly being shuttered this weekend due to credible terrorist threats. As Foust notes, there have been 13 other attacks on embassies and consulates under Bush. It has been commonplace for the last few years to hear about the switch to an indirect strategy that operates through local partners and interagency teams. This will, we are told, enable us to still protect ourselves without a large ground presence or state-building. But as Dan and I have noted repeatedly, the aims still remain lofty while the same basic strategic mistakes are made.

We assume that the local government has the same interests that we do or the capacity/willingness to advance ours. 1,000 prisoners breaking free from the Benghazi jail seems to mitigate against the latter idea, and the Libyan government’s prolonged reluctance to either act against the Benghazi killers or allow us to do so casts doubt on the former notion. We also believe that with a handful of Quiet Americans we can become power players in political and social systems that we barely understand. Kind of hard to do that when we can barely keep up with basic enemy counterintelligence and have relied (often with suboptimal results) on local intelligence services to operate in AfPak and the Middle East’s paramilitary conflicts. We can’t even prevent al-Qaeda supporters from getting DoD contracts!

Dreams of playing a guiding role in the evolution of Syrian armed groups seem far-fetched in light of the rise of a self-organizing foreign fighter conveyer belt. The re-emergence of al-Qaeda and its affiliaties in many battlegrounds, particularly Iraq, also casts doubt on the strategic effectiveness of current American operations relative to the organization’s long-term plans and regenerative capabilities. It should at a very minimum cause some critical reconsideration of notions that a combination of aggressive counterterrorism efforts and the Arab Spring’s supposed liberalizing effect had AQ on the ropes, a popular notion that Gartenstein-Ross and other scholars fought a lonely battle against for much of 2011 and early 2012.

In the backdrop of such a fluid strategic environment we have put a multitude of military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel as agents of our will in unstable regions of the world. Many of them serve in isolated and poorly reinforced outposts like Benghazi. But even well-guarded bases and depots are vulnerable to a skilled opponent with a minimum of combined arms competency, cheap standoff weapons, excellent intelligence and counterintelligence, and a willingness to throw men into what could be certain death in order to beat us in a war of attrition. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it was also the enemy’s template in another war, in another time.

What is so disturbing about Benghazi, as we can see, has very little to do with Benghazi itself. It is that we have wed ourselves to an indirect strategy but have not done the due dilligence to be able to effectively realize it. It is also that our achievements abroad in a variety of battlefields from Africa to Afghanistan are vastly more fragile than we have been led to believe, and our enemies more resilient and capable than consensus commentary admitted.

Neither Benghazi nor the various maladies of the last couple years are proof that an indirect strategy is invalid. They are just symbolic of the vast difficulties inherent in actually making such a strategy, executing as operations and tactics, and adapting to a complex and often rapidly shifting political landscape since 2001. And we may be more or less stuck with the indirect approach regardless. There is no more popular and fiscal will for Iraqs and Afghanistans. And even a strategy with heavy flaws is better than previous theories of victory that were mostly temporary fixes for intensive commitments we sought to extricate ourselves from.

But as the slow drip of Benghazi rumors continues (likely for a while!) we should come to grips with the fact that even indirect strategies must be properly resourced, planned, and manned when the aims they seek to achieve are so expansive. This post will close by using the familiar ends, ways, and means concept to elucidate some of these challenges.

  • Means–just as important as ends and ways–are more fragile than it may seem. Special operations forces, diplomats, and spies are far and few between relative to already hard-pressed general purpose forces and are even more vulnerable to overstretch and attrition.  And, of course, cuts are coming to many sectors of the national security enterprise. 
  • Ways are often taken for ends–whether they are drone strikes, supplying rebels, or advise, train, assist packages. But the notion of strategic effect–the manner in which instrumental action is cashed into political currency–is consistently underthought. 
  • Ends are consistently absent from public discussion or–as Frank Hoffman has noted–mostly aspirational in nature. 

Little of this is new. We have been down this road many times. Making strategy is hard, and making strategy without shared political vision is even more difficult. To be fair, the setbacks described in this entry pale in comparison to Cold War blunders or WWII’s defeats and lost opportunities. Heck, even compared to 2001-2006 they seem rather minor. And the prosperity and external stability that the US currently enjoys grants both robustness against the consequences of strategic failure and enables it.

But large or small, strategic dysfunction is dangerous all the same. Even if the US ultimately muddles through, even a small death toll like Benghazi’s is a chilling reminder of the human cost that our best, brightest, and bravest pay for mistakes of strategy and statecraft. We owe them so much better.