Shadow Government

Who is ultimately to blame for the inadequate security in Benghazi?

The media coverage of the State Department's internal review of the Benghazi attack appears to be burying the lede.

Several of the accounts I read focused on the apparent paradox of, on the one hand, a report sharply critical of senior (actually, mid/senior-level, since the finger appears to be pointed no higher than the assistant secretary level) State Department officials for the "grossly inadequate" security that contributed to the death of the ambassador, and, on the other hand, a report that recommended no extra accountability. As the Drudge headline has it: "The Buck Stops... Nowhere." The media accounts also cover other aspects of the report, for instance that it further repudiates the infamous "talking points" that the administration was peddling in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. But the focus of media attention clearly is on the question of accountability.

The apparent paradox was sufficiently puzzling that I decided to read the unclassified version of the report itself with one question in mind: "Why did the State Department managers tolerate such inadequate security?" One theory is that the administration was so wedded to the rosy scenario in Libya and the "lead from behind/light footprint" that they systematically misread intelligence and operational requirements to fit their preconceived image of reality. Social scientists call this a motivated bias, and I have long thought this was at work in the administration's handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. Perhaps it also shaped how they went into the problem in the first place.

The State Department report provides tantalizing hints that this might be the case:

"...the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests..." p. 5

"...Special Mission Benghazi's uncertain future after 2012 and its 'non-status' as a temporary..." p. 5

"...the successful nature of Libya's July 7, 2012, national elections -- which exceeded expectations -- renewed Washington's optimism in Libya's future..." pp. 16-17

"...Simply put, in the months leading up to September 11, 2012, security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a 'shared responsibility' in Washington, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security. Key decisions, such as the extension of the State Department presence in Benghazi until December 2012, or non-decisions in Washington, such as the failure to establish standards for Benghazi and to meet them, or the lack of a cohesive staffing plan, essentially set up Benghazi as 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." pp. 29-30

"...The Board found, however, that Washington showed a tendency to overemphasize the positive impact of physical security upgrades, which were often field-expedient improvements to a profoundly weak platform, while generally failing to meet Benghazi's repeated requests to augment the numbers of TDY DS personnel...." p. 33

"...The Board found that there was a tendency on the part of policy, security and other U.S. government officials to rely heavily on the probability of warning intelligence and on the absence of specific threat information. The result was possibly to overlook the usefulness of taking a hard look at accumulated, sometimes circumstantial information, and instead to fail to appreciate threats and understand trends, particularly based on increased violence and the targeting of foreign diplomats and international organizations in Benghazi...." p. 38

These and other similar data points could be pieces of a mosaic that reflects an administration too quick to declare mission accomplished and move on.  

But the authors of the State Department report have a different ultimate culprit in mind, and they are not shy about naming it: Congress.  

After a brief preamble, the report begins with two overarching context-setters:

(1) The Diplomatic Security mission is very hard these days and is doing a great job overall.

(2) The State Department has not gotten the resources it needs. Here is the money quote:

"For many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work, with varying degrees of success. This has brought about a deep sense of the importance of husbanding resources to meet the highest priorities, laudable in the extreme in any government department. But it has also had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation.

There is no easy way to cut through this Gordian knot, all the more so as budgetary austerity looms large ahead. At the same time, 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. The recommendations in this report attempt to grapple with these issues and err on the side of increased attention to prioritization and to fuller support for people and facilities engaged in working in high risk, high threat areas. 

The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs, which, in total, constitute a small percentage both of the full national budget and that spent for national security. One overall conclusion in this report is that Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives."  p. 3 (emphasis added)

In other words, the executive branch did not create the conditions for this tragedy by fundamentally misreading Libya; rather, Congress created the conditions by fundamentally underfunding the State Department.

I believe that the State Department does need more resources, so I am a comparatively sympathetic audience for this argument. I wonder, however, whether Congress might be more sympathetic to the argument that the administration bears more blame than the authors of the report seem prepared to assign.

Update: Since I filed my post, three of the State Department management figures most directly implicated in the report have resigned. Perhaps that resolves the accountability paradox, but it doesn't resolve the deeper question that animated my original post: What set the conditions for this mismanagement? 

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Shadow Government

Japan and Korea: A tale of two elections

2012 will end with Japan and Korea both choosing new governments as the leadership on Asia policy changes at the State Department. All three transitions could have an impact on the president's vaunted pivot to Asia.

In Japan the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just walloped the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the polls. On the one hand, this is nothing new. The last three Japanese elections (2005, 2009 and 2012) ended with lopsided victories as the frustrated Japanese electorate searched for leadership to get them out of their current doldrums. With the election of Shinzo Abe, however, the Western media and the left have hit general quarters. Time Magazine predicts dangerous new friction in Northeast Asia; the folks at Foreign Policy have featured analysis warning Japan could go nuclear; and within some quarters of the administration there is nervous chatter about whether Tokyo might provoke China too much. 

Abe is a nationalist, to be sure, and he has said less than helpful things this election cycle about elevating attention to Japan's territorial dispute with Korea and revisiting a 1993 apology for treatment of the euphemistically-called "comfort women" who were sent to the rear areas of Japanese combat units during the war. On the whole, however, Abe is a good nationalist -- which is to say that he wants to project a Japan that is far more resolute than the flip-flopping of the past three years under the DPJ. At a time when Beijing thinks it is winning in its campaign to coerce maritime states on territorial issues, Abe has promised to increase spending on the Japanese navy and coast guard, to relax constraints on defense cooperation with the United States, and to strengthen security ties with the Philippines, Australia, India and others in Beijing's crosshairs. The United States should embrace this agenda. The problem is that any continuation of the nationalist rhetoric of the election campaign would drive a wedge between Japan and Korea, putting the United States and Japan in a weaker position to deal with a dangerous North Korea and an overbearing China. The administration should quietly explain the problem to the incoming team in Tokyo in exactly those strategic and national interest terms. In his last go as Prime Minister, Abe moved from nationalist to pragmatic statesman, improving ties with both China and Korea. As it became clear that LDP would win a landslide this time, he also began tempering his comments and stressing that he would rebuild the U.S.-Japan alliance and place importance on relations with China and Korea. His top advisors say privately not to worry. National security is all about worrying, though, so the administration will need the skill to construct a trusted private dialogue on the sensitive issues with Tokyo, backed by robust public support for Japan's security.

Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday. Right now the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, has a lead in most polls, but just inside the margin of error. Her opponent, Moon Jae-in, appears to have slight momentum on his side (Korean law limits polling in the final days of the election). Both are trying to appeal to the center without abandoning their bases. Park is the former daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee, while Moon was chief-of-staff and heir apparent to the former president, Roh Moo-hyun. Park's supporters are generally tougher on North Korea, more pro-U.S., and older. Moon's supporters are generally softer on North Korea and younger, but not gripped by the same anti-Americanism that helped Roh get elected in 2002. The younger voters' conversion is typified by Psy, the Gangnam-style rap artist who recently apologized for his crude anti-American songs from a decade ago. Moon himself is a pragmatist who appears to have learned the political and security consequences of the Roh administration's initial anti-Americanism. The problem is that Moon has surrounded himself with hardcore leftists who still believe that the right approach to North Korea is to buy their confidence with economic aid, even after (or they would argue especially after) Pyongyang has tested long-range missiles and possibly begun preparations for a third nuclear test. Needless to say, that policy would create considerable dissonance with Washington. Even Park, whose pro-alliance credentials are solid, has hinted that she will not be quite as tough with either Pyongyang or Beijing as the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, has been.

Just as Japan and Korea enter these transitions, the Obama administration is losing its best stewards of Asia policy -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her assistant secretary for East Asia (and, truth in advertising, good friend to a number of us at Shadowgov), Kurt Campbell. There are other solid Asia hands in the administration, to be sure, but State has been particularly instrumental in managing U.S. alliances in the region. It is not hard to imagine an incoming team at State deciding that the highest priority in the second term must be modifying the harder edges of the pivot and quietly reassuring Beijing that the U.S. does not fully support Japan's new trajectory -- or worse, publicly walking away from a declaratory policy on the contested Senkaku Islands that suggests the U.S. is completely neutral (for three administration's the policy has been neutrality on the territorial claims, but clear signals that the United States would not be neutral if there were any military coercion by China). There are hints that some in the administration have already been shifting their public statements in this direction. Similarly, Korea-U.S. relations have prospered in the last four years, not because the Obama administration came in with any particular strategy for strengthening relations with Seoul, but because the President was personally captivated by President Lee Myung-bak's commitment to globalizing Korea's role and restoring trust in alliance relations with Washington. It is one thing to react to a dynamic ally, but quite another to put in the hard work of strengthening alliance ties when there are disagreements over North Korea policy or uncertainties in Seoul about how to deal with China in future.

The good news is that any new team will have to face confirmation hearings. In private calls and hearings, the Senate should be sure to take some time off from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to verify the nominees' fundamental thinking about our alliances in Asia. These alliances do not run on auto-pilot, nor are they always easy. But as Lord Carrington once said about us as allies in the face of European criticism in the 1980s, "Yes ... yes ... all your complaints are true, but they are the only Americans we have."

Tadayuki YOSHIKAWA/AFP/Getty Images