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Shouldering Benghazi

Amid the furor over the attack on our U.S. consulate and the death of four Americans serving in Libya, Secretary Hillary Clinton convened an internal State Department review -- and that Accountability Review Board has just released its report. Clinton has cannily already said she will adopt all of the recommendations in the report. Unfortunately, even doing so will not solve the problems that occurred in Benghazi.

The New York Times describes the report as sharply critical, but it is not. While acknowledging that "there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity," and "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels," the report concludes that the solution lies in more money with fewer congressional strings attached. Yet when Congress has given State money and allowed it latitude to program those resources, this has not resulted in an adequate supply of expert diplomats to high-risk postings or adequate security for our diplomats operating in those postings.

The report contains all the well-known State Department refrains: The world is newly complicated, diplomacy is underfunded, Congress must change its approach. Here's the medley of greatest hits, in language from the report itself:

"the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is being stretched to the limit as never before ... for many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work ... it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security ... [any] solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs ... the United States cannot retreat in the face of such challenges."

What the State Department does not acknowledge -- but what is at the core of its institutional failures -- is that it sets priorities, and that those priorities have not adequately changed with the changing needs of American diplomacy or the changing demands of security for our diplomats. Since 9/11, funding for the State Department and USAID has increased by 155 percent and the size of the Foreign Service has doubled, yet State has chosen to channel its increased resources to the functions the institution values more than diplomatic security. There is not even a mandatory training program for diplomats being assigned to high-risk posts.

Prior to the Benghazi attacks, State's advocates complained that post-9/11 funding increases had been predominantly in consular and diplomatic security rather than in new staff for multilateral organizations, international law, economics, science and technology, public/private partnerships, and international organizations. By which they meant that the terrorist attacks on the United States should have resulted in more involvement in activities to which State is already optimized, rather than in increasing security for embassies and screening people applying for visas even though those are critical vulnerabilities highlighted by attacks on American embassies in the past 15 years. The report just released uses this opportunity to argue for more language training; it offers insight into the institutional culture of an organization that begrudges security at the expense of additional staff to do what the department is already doing.

The report's top recommendation is that "the Department should urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas." The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review called for the same thing; yet in the two years since the QDDR was released, State has not developed such a risk model nor expended institutional effort in building consensus with the executive and with Congress. Having our diplomats actively engaged in dangerous circumstances -- as Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya and Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria have been -- is essential. If our diplomats remain bastioned inside our embassies, they could just as well perform their functions from Ohio as from Libya. But State has not made solving this problem a priority.

The report's second recommendation is to applaud State for having already created "a new Diplomatic Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for High Threat Posts." Its third is more personnel for assistant secretaries in Washington. This is deeply discouraging, because it reinforces State's tendency to believe that more money and more high-level positions are the solution, rather than clarifying accountability. The report states that "among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations." Yet, with its advocacy of external threat evaluators, increased staffing in Washington, and "multi-bureau support cells," it does not make recommendations for resolving that irresponsibility.

In one crucial way, the system worked in Libya: the ambassador-in-country determined whether the mission justified the risks. Ambassador Stevens undertook an extraordinary set of risks traveling to Benghazi, given the problems the report explains with local security forces. State allowed Benghazi to become "a floating TDY platform with successive principal officers often confined to the SMC due to threats and inadequate resources, and RSOs resorting to field-expedient solutions to correct security shortfalls." The report acknowledges similar security problems and proposed solutions have been extant since 1999. The tragedy of Benghazi is that, once again, State has proven itself incapable of arraying the institution to support the terrific individuals serving on the front lines of American diplomacy.  

The problems identified in the report are systemic problems, and fixing them is almost wholly within State's existing authorities. As Congress explores the Benghazi debacle, it ought to force State to look clearly at the deficiencies of its institutional culture, and align incentives to correct them. The questions State should be pressed to answer are: Why have you not fixed these problems before now? How can you make us confident you will fix them going forward?

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