Dan Simpson: What I learned in New Mexico

There was talk of the state’s unique history … oh, and Benghazi

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My class in college has regular “mini-reunions” between the big anniversaries, usually held in interesting venues. Last week it was Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It took me into two worlds that were unusual for me. The first was New Mexico, brown, dry, in its fourth year of drought, bilingual in English and Spanish, with a population of 2 million (less populous than the Pittsburgh metropolitan area), oriented since its first invasion by Europeans, the Spanish, in 1540, north-south, rather than east-west for the most part.

The second was the look that a few days with the group — all white 75-year-old males with wives, companions and a few widows — gave me into a part of America I don’t normally frequent. Some of the group’s contrast with frequently sensible Pittsburghers, along with New Mexico’s contrast with our comfortable, well-watered hills, rivers and valleys reminded me again of the pleasures of my work and the place where we live.

The current rage of America’s right-wingers, which they are sawing on like aging violinists, is Benghazi. Apart from House Speaker John Boehner’s having named a new committee to look into the events there in 2012, the drumming on the subject by some of the media was reflected in the fact that people at the reunion were asking me what I thought about “Benghazi.” I suppose the Republicans see the events there, and the role in them that they seek to attribute to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as perhaps their best chance to derail the locomotive currently pulling her club car toward the presidency in 2016.

Benghazi presents a real problem for me. First of all, I lived there for nearly two years. Secondly, I was an American diplomat in places not unlike Benghazi — Bangui, Beirut, Mogadishu, Kinshasa — and took an approach to my work not unlike that of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in Benghazi in 2012. Thirdly, my 35 years in the Foreign Service gave me a perspective on it, and on the State Department’s approach to security, that is different from that of the political clowns seeking to exploit “Benghazi” as a U.S. political issue.

According to me there are still aspects of what occurred in Benghazi that need not only to be looked into but also to be made clear to the American people. In that sense, in principle, I should be glad at the appointment of even a highly politicized new commission of inquiry. However, given the House Republicans’ orientation, I seriously doubt they will look at the matter to seek truth or speak truth to power.

Three issues remain foggy: Who financed the anti-Muslim film that was at least part of the cause of the attack on the American office in Benghazi in 2012? It is attributed to an Egyptian Coptic Christian, but he was notably broke and the film, made in technicolor with professional actors and dubbed into Arabic had to have cost at least $50,000. The argument that the Benghazi attack was not prompted by the film but was instead a planned attack is simply silly in light of the fact that attacks against American installations across the Muslim world in the same time frame also occurred as a result of the film.

Examination of who financed the film should not rule out either the CIA, which has close ties with West Coast Iranian and other Middle Eastern exiles, or the Department of Defense, both of which have lots of money and many personnel, some of whom do not always exercise the best of judgment in political affairs outside their lanes.

A second factor regarding “Benghazi” is the fact that U.S. ambassadors consider it a high priority to get around within their assigned countries to better understand them, which can easily involve danger. The deaths of Mr. Stevens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi was tragic and lamentable, but I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that he knew he was putting his life on the line in going to lawless Benghazi, that he probably didn’t want to have bodyguards all around him as he carried out his meetings, that he understood perfectly well the risks and yet he was there anyway. That’s simply the way we work.

Third, and here comes the Hillary part, even though as secretary of state she had overall responsibility for the allocation of State Department funds, she would not possibly have gone far enough into the weeds to be able to know if security in Libya was getting as much money as it should have. She would have relied on her experts in diplomatic security, and the old British Army expression would have applied: “You don’t hire a dog and then bark.”

So the Republicans who hope to derail Hillary’s presidential campaign with “Benghazi” are probably, as it were, barking up the wrong tree. I guess I don’t care if they want to chase their tails doing so, although I hate to see the taxpayers’ money and the public’s attention to foreign affairs wasted in that fashion.

Back to New Mexico, which looks a little like Benghazi without the sandstorms. As a state, it is unique. One of our lecturers, bearing a Hispanic surname, was a proud raconteur of the state’s history. He led off by saying he was a 13th-generation New Mexican.

The Spanish arrived there in 1540. (Eat your hearts out, Mayflower descendants, Daughters of the American Revolution and Jamestown lovers.) It still has resident many of the Native American groups who were there at the time. Their antecedents drove all of the Spanish out in 1680 in the so-called Pueblo Revolt, although the Spanish came back in force 12 years later.

It can be said that New Mexicans, in general, have been oriented toward Mexico since the 1500s and probably still are to a great extent, bearing directly on the U.S. political issue of immigration. My favorite fact from the visit was that the market town for early New Mexico was Chihuahua — nothing to do with the Taco Bell dog — down the trail from Santa Fe in Mexico.

Some New Mexicans profess to hate Texans to the east, even though Spanish priests and officials fleeing Santa Fe when the Puebloans came for them headed for El Paso, which sits on the point of Texas that sticks into New Mexico, for refuge.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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