On Benghazi—An honest plea for specific charges.

On Benghazi: a challenge to conservatives to spell out, with specifics, what the wrongdoing was and who covered it up, when, and how.

Yesterday’s hearings over Benghazi (or as Ed Kilgore is fond of calling it to stress conservative hype, Benghazi!) seem to have been a big nothingburger in terms of actual scandal. As Steve Benen puts it,

Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there’s been a cover-up, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political “scandal,” no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that’s scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there’s no underlying conspiracy to be found.

Steve, as a progressive blogger, is admittedly biased. But reading Andrew Stiles’ report on National Review Online I get exactly the same impression. Per Stiles, and stripping away the rhetoric and the table-pounding calls for “more questions,” the testimony of Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli at the time, revealed the following:

(1) Susan Rice was wrong to call the attacks on the Benghazi consulate a possible result of the infamous anti-Muslim video. But Rice was describing, in real time and with proper caveats, what she thought was the case at the time, and everyone official has long since admitted that her initial, tentative take was wrong. So: who cares?

(2) The State department didn’t want Hicks to meet with a Republican congressional delegation on the subject, and an official without clearance tried but failed to horn in on the meeting. This will surprise anyone who has never read a book or article about a government agency, or known anybody who worked for one, but—really? Reading against the grain, it becomes clear that Hicks did meet with the Republican delegation, which got all the information it needed. Indeed, he told all kinds of investigators everything he had to say.

(3) Cheryl Mills, “State Department general counsel and former chief of staff to Secretary Clinton,” demanded an account of the above meeting and “sought to keep [Hicks] on a tight leash.” Now, like it or not, the U.S. has a system of political appointees in executive departments, and the Secretary of State is kind of expected to have subordinates whom she trusts. As for seeking a report of the meeting—a bit aggressive, sure, but again there was no cover-up; Hicks was able to tell whomever he wanted whatever he knew.

(4) Hicks was demoted to desk officer. He thinks it was because he was too aggressive on Benghazi. I wonder what his superiors think. In any case, this is at most hardball management but no crime.

(5) “The three witnesses present at Wednesday’s hearing were repeatedly referred to as whistleblowers” (by Republicans). But just as in that parable about calling the horse’s tail a fifth leg, that doesn’t make them whistleblowers. That word denotes someone who exposes crimes or acts of malfeasance that have been covered up. But the testimony itself, from the accounts I’ve read, exposed no coverup, and no crime.

That’s it. On the other side, we also learn, from this conservative account, that the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, which took Hicks’ testimony, absolved Clinton of any blame for poor security. (Hicks didn’t get to see the classified report, but I’ve seen no accounts from those who have, including partisan Republicans, that suggests a whitewash.) As a matter of fact, we learn—regarding the substantive matter supposedly at issue—nothing about State having even been responsible for poor security, as opposed to an ex ante decision regarding limited resources that was defensible at the time but turned out badly.

Look, I’m not a Benghazi expert. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there’s something here that the media aren’t telling me. But before I evaluate the case, I need to see some concrete charges. My challenge to conservatives is to tell me, very simply, the following:

(1) What, in your view, was the crime? Who did what and which law did it break? No crime, no cover-up (in the usual sense).

But the idea seems to be that what was “covered up” was not crime but incompetence. (That stretches the former meaning of “cover-up,” but never mind.) So:

(2) Who failed competently to perform his or her job, in which concrete ways? Which decisions are we talking about, by whom, at what time, and on what grounds should we believe that a competent person in the job in question would have had to make a different decision? Again, failure to devote unlimited resources to guarding every consulate at all times does not constitute an incompetent decision but rather precisely a competent one. And a judgment (apparently held by the diplomats on the ground at the time) that there was a tradeoff between high security and diplomatic effectiveness is also, absent conclusive arguments to the contrary, quite defensible. We need more.

(3) What information was covered up, and how? What facts do we (a) now know to be the case that (b) were previously concealed from view by (c) illegitimate threats or undue influence (as opposed to agency politics as usual, whereby those higher up would rather sweep mistakes under the rug but grudgingly tolerate subordinates who air them)?

Unless all three of these elements in (3) are  present, there was no cover-up—at most a halfhearted attempt at a cover-up, or an honest difference of opinion about facts. And unless number (1) or (2) is present, there was nothing to cover up.

At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.  I know that this blog has a fair number of conservative readers. And perhaps other sites will pick this up. I hope so, and if so: answers, please. Specific ones, point by point. Then we’ll at least have something we can argue about.

Update: Yes, I know my  bemusement on this isn’t new. The “nothingburger” label I got from Kevin Drum’s post, which can be added to the above links and many others. But I haven’t seen the demand for specifics laid out in numbered points and subpoints before. And sometimes that helps. If nothing else, conservatives may have to ask themselves whether they’ve been sold a bill of goods by conservative media outlets selling a scandal vaguer than they realize.

Second Update: I’d like to stress that I’m engaged in an exercise in arguendum: even if the conservative slant on Benghazi is accurate, there has been no “cover up” that I can see. A less partisan account, e.g. that of the New York Times, casts doubt on that slant to begin with. For one thing, having a department lawyer be present during congressional investigation visits was, allegedly, a longstanding State policy. This should be easily verifiable (or disprovable). For another, State claims that Hicks has not been demoted but given a temporary job, at the same salary, pending a transfer he requested. I’m more dubious about this—clearly Hicks thinks he’s been wronged—but we should note that Hicks’ account has not gone unchallenged.

The fall of the House of Qaddafi

Juan Cole says it’s just about over.

Juan Cole says it’s about over. Tunisia and Egypt recognized the insurgent government overnight. Is the House of Assad next?

The best argument against the NATO intervention was that it wouldn’t work. Apparently it did.

That’s not to say that we should expect a smooth road ahead in Libya, any more than in Egypt or (let’s hope) Syria. Still,

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?

On Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi and other Narcissistic Autocrats

By any objective analysis, Colonel Gaddafi is toast, but his official statements still forecast victory, as they have throughout each defeat of his troops over the past 6 months. One can’t help recalling Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister who relayed his boss’s increasingly ludicrous reports of success as the regime was rapidly being crushed.

There is a school of thought in politics and international relations which holds that all the bluster from dictators under pressure is propaganda, in the sense that the leaders themselves realize it’s untrue. They are just trying to demoralize their opponents and rally their friends by intentionally overstating how well things are going. In their hearts, autocrats know the jig is up and that means a window for a negotiated settlement with them has opened.

That school of thought is usually wrong.

Continue reading “On Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi and other Narcissistic Autocrats”

American exceptionalism

Obama appealed to it tonight. You think that will shut the wingnuts up? Me neither.

One of the stupidest of right-wing talking points about Obama – against, let it be said, very tough competition – is that he somehow disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project. One passage in tonight’s speech played that back at the GOP weasels who, having demanded that he do something in Libya, are now hoping to inflict a political wound on him for having done so, and the national interest and honor be damned.

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

This, of course, will not keep the Republican Party, or Fox News (aka Republikanskya Pravda) from continuing to repeat the lie that Barack Obama does not love his country.

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.

Not so bad, really. Still, I wish he’d used Dan Drezner’s version.

Update Credit where it’s due: Bill Kristol prefers his interventionist principles to recreational Obama-bashing. Good for him.

Missionary creep

The abuse of a good idea, the responsibility to protect, to justify the Libyan intervention.

The UN Security Council resolutions coming down hard on Gaddafi, No. 1970 of 26 February and No. 1973 of 17 March, use one particular phrase that bears thinking about. My italics:

Recalling the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population … (SCR 1970. recital)

Expressing its determination to ensure the protection of civilians … (SCR 1973, recital)

Considering that the establishment of a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya constitutes an important element for the protection of civilians … (SCR 1973, another recital)

The term has a history.

Continue reading “Missionary creep”

Geography lesson

A reminder of where the Libyan population and oilfields are.

From the AP :

Libyan rebels still hold much of the country’s western coastal strip, including their de facto capital in Benghazi.

Time for a little geography lesson. Benghazi is in the east.
Credit: blogger Robert Price of Colorado

The population density map is apparently based on administrative divisions and understates the polarisation. Similar map here. As Google Earth and night views from satellites show, to a first approximation Libya consists of a thin populated ribbon along its 1,770 km coastline, with an enormous Altogether Uninhabited Interior bar scattered oilfields, oases, camels, Bedouin, and legacy minefields from the Afrika Korps and the Eighth Army.

The ribbon is not of even density Continue reading “Geography lesson”

Is it possible that Obama & Co. are right about Libya?

Juan Cole – an accredited expert, and no unthinking hawk – certainly seems to think so.

As I’ve said before, I have no right to an opinion about what’s going on in Libya. I’d like to believe that the President has chosen to do the right thing, both because I admire him politically and because – unlike, apparently, the entire leadership of the Republican Party – I’d like to see my country come out of this with credit rather than ignominy.

Also, I do have a strong prejudice against genocide, and when a dictator already up to his elbows in blood has his supporters sing songs about “disinfecting” the country of his opponents (referred to as “germs”) it’s not unreasonable to suspect that something genocidal is in the works.

So while it’s possible that the near-consensus against the intervention in Left Blogistan is correct, I’d prefer to believe otherwise. And it turns out that Juan Cole, who certainly is entitled to an opinion and who is anything but a reckless hawk, regards the case for intervention as airtight:

Pundits who want this whole thing to be over with in 7 days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind.

Update Nick Kristof offers two interesting facts:

1. At least some U.S. servicemembers are indeed being “welcomed as liberators” in Libya.

2. Before the establishment of the No-Fly Zone, refugees were streaming across Libya’s border with Egypt. Now they’re streaming back.

“Reactive” versus “Strategic”? Please.

Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better when we stop using flatulent phrases like “strategic”, “reactive,” “leadership” or “realistic.”

Foreign Policy reports that President Obama decided last Tuesday evening to intervene in Libya after a “highly contentious” meeting.  This contrasts to some extent with the administration’s posture in regard to Tunisia and Egypt.   And it displeases some:

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

I literally don’t know what this means.  First, perhaps the reason why “the playbook” changed in Libya was that Qaddafi was sending in tanks to murder his own people, and that unlike with Egypt and Tunisia, we had a very contentious if not hostile relationship with Libya, despite more recent detente.

And that leads to the second problem: this opposition of “reaction” and “strategy.”  Clemons surely understands that the United States does not control events; there are 6 billion people in the world, more than 150 governments, and the United States is not a unipolar power.  Put another way, part of being “strategic” is that you have to react to events.  There’s no other way.

Foreign policy analysts love to genuflect at the memory of Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State.  Acheson never thought that South Korea was in the vital interests of the United States; neither did anyone else.  But when confronted with the sort of naked aggression unleashed by the North on June 25, 1950, the administration felt it had no choice.  Should it have watched as the North Korean communists took over the whole peninsula?

Maybe the administration saw this as a relatively cheap way to get on the side of the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world.  True?  Maybe not.  Maybe it will be a disaster.  But that won’t be because it is “reactive”.  If it works, then someone will later call it “opportunistic.”

George W. Bush was “strategic.”  As Stephen Colbert wisely noted, “He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!”  Is that better?

Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better once we stop throwing around words like “strategic” or “reactive” — or for that matter, “realistic”, “principled,” “leadership”, or “tough.”

A Libyan Insurgency Would Not Look Like Iraq

Even if Libya turns into a quagmire, here are three reasons why a Qaddafist insurgency would pale in comparison to Iraq.

Never doubt the intensity of a Sullivan scorned (at least politically, that is).  He is now excoriating the President for his Libya policy, and raising fears of a Libyan quagmire akin to Iraq.  Although one would have to be willfully blind not to feel a lot of trepidation over whatever we call Obama’s Libya policy (A war?  A police action?  A humanitarian intervention?), even a Qaddafian insurgency would not be nearly as deadly as Iraq’s.  There are a few reasons for this:

1)  Population and population density.  Iraq has more than 31 million people; Libya, roughly 6 million.  Yes, you heard that right: 6 million.  It’s a very large country, but it’s basically empty, mainly because it is mostly desert.  It would require far less troops, even under the assumption that the US would commit troops there (which would indeed be crazy, but I’m assuming worst-case scenario here).  Before oil was discovered, there was not much there: little wonder that it wasn’t colonized by the Europeans until 1911, and only then by the Italians, desperate for something after they suffered a humiliating defeat at Adowa to the Ethiopians a few years earlier.

2)  Safe harbors in neighboring countries.  Right now I’m reading Alastair Horne’s magnificent history of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace.  Very highly recommended.  Horne makes the point that the FLN could regroup and gain stregnth away from French forces by adopting safe harbors in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco.  In Iraq, insurgents could go to Iran and Syria, and Sunni insurgents got help from the Saudis.  This will be far harder in Libya.  Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco do not figure to help out.  Chad, Niger and Sudan might, but anyone pursuing Qaddafists will have little compunction pursuing them over the border, and Chad and Niger, highly dependent upon foreign aid, can be pressured into cutting off support.

3)  Past experience.  Insurgents can appeal to civilians by promising relief from hated regimes and by posing as apostles of national liberation: thus, Muqtada al-Sadr with Iraqi Shiites, or the FLN, or Ho Chi Minh or (fill in blank).  That will be much harder for Qaddafists to do.  They might get support from those ethnic groups from which Qaddafi’s family comes, but civilians will be under no illusions.  This hardly always works, see, e.g. the Taliban, but surely it will have a lot of effect, especially as a Libya-Iraq comparison.

None of this is to say that Libya won’t be a quagmire, or that Obama was right (or even constitutional) in taking his actions (although on balance I think he was — for later).  Rather, it is to say that if we are assessing Libya, we shouldn’t think that it is Iraq Act Two.

Someone at the Pentagon has a sense of irony

“Days not weeks” doesn’t sound like “Odyssey Dawn.”

I’m not sure what to think about the action in Libya. To my mind, we can’t allow Gaddafi to massacre his own countrymen. So I’m supportive. Yet after we ran our spear into the ground in Iraq, it’s hard not* to be sanguine about both the strategic and long-term humanitarian impact of this effort, not to mention the impact on our men and women in uniform.

President Obama has stated that heavy involvement of our forces will last “days not weeks.” So what’s with Operation Odyssey Dawn?

*Sorry–dumb edit glitch