Benghazi questions remain

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Even though I have no respect for the Republican legislators apparently interested only in throwing spanners in the works of President Barack Obama and the U.S. government, I do agree with them that a closer look needs to be taken into what happened in Benghazi, Libya, and in Washington, D.C., in September 2012.

One remaining unilluminated area is why the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice used -- which ended up costing her the job of secretary of state -- were so bitterly fought over inside the government. It appears that the Department of State, the CIA, the National Security Council -- which is to say, the White House -- and probably the Department of Defense all fiddled with Ms. Rice's talking points for the Sunday morning talk shows broadcast five days after four Americans were killed in Benghazi.

This kind of stuff is normal for Washington, but the substantive question appears to be whether the assault on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi was a planned terrorist attack with involvement by Libyan organizations affiliated with al-Qaida or whether it was a more spontaneous affair, prompted by an anti-Muslim film making the rounds of the Islamic world and apparently made by a Coptic Christian Egyptian in California.

Why was the genesis of the attack important?

There is a relatively simple reason, one that predates the Benghazi attack and that involved Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, Ms. Rice, presidential advisers Samantha Power and Gayle Smith, and, in the end, Mr. Obama himself. It is also important to remember that Mr. Obama was in the midst of his reelection campaign and wanted no embarrassments. Ms. Clinton was nearing the end of her tenure as secretary, seeking to walk out the door with a record of no serious mess-ups.

The reason lies in the intra-administration debate that preceded Mr. Obama's decision to throw the United States' military weight behind the rebel effort to get rid of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

One side of the internecine battle was led by Ms. Clinton and included Ms. Rice, Ms. Power and Ms. Smith, among others. They sought, understandably, given how awful Mr. Gadhafi was in human rights terms, to support the rebels. Others argued that, in addition to the United States already having been stretched too thin in the Middle East -- with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and with threatening Iran while protecting Israel -- backing the Libyan opposition was problematic because it included al-Qaida-oriented, terrorism-inclined, anti-U.S. bad guys. The question was whether the United States would be better off in Libya or the Middle East in general if the rebels came to power.

In the event, with all the militia and other lawlessness in Libya, it is not clear at all. At the time, however, the side led by Ms. Clinton, urging Mr. Obama to have the United States weigh in, won out. We did, and the rebels won in October 2011 with the death of Mr. Gadhafi.

The al-Qaida-linked militias attacking the U.S. office in Benghazi and killing the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats there nearly a year after the U.S.-backed side won would not have reflected well either on Mr. Obama's decision or on Ms. Clinton's and Ms. Rice's advocacy of the decision he took. Therefore, the story that the anti-Muslim film lay behind the attack, as opposed to the Libyan elements the U.S. had supported, looked a lot better for Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton and thus needed to be the version that Ms. Rice would promote on the talk shows.

On that basis, the intra-administration battle over the talking points occurred and the version Ms. Rice ultimately presented was developed. So, even though I am really tired of the Republicans continuing to beat the dead horse of the Benghazi tragedy, and their reasons for doing so, I would unfortunately agree with them that the whole story hasn't come out yet and needs to.

Mr. Obama has won his second term, so that element no longer enters in. The group that won in Libya is in power, so the question of the initial wisdom of the administration in getting rid of one leader without having a clear fix on who would succeed him -- a fundamental point -- is no longer relevant in Libya, although we need to think about it in Syria. As far as Ms. Clinton being a candidate for president in 2016, I abhor Americans thrashing around on the subject of who is going to run for the White House three years out; we should concentrate instead on solving our formidable financial and employment problems.

The other piece of the Benghazi affair that still needs more sunshine is the question of the genesis of the provocative anti-Muslim film, the one upon which some parties inside the administration wanted to place the blame for the Benghazi attack. Public blame for it remains on the West Coast Egyptian Coptic Christian who might have had reason to make it. The part I still don't understand is how he, who had no money and a background that would have ruled out his borrowing from any reputable source, found the thousands of dollars he would have needed to produce the film. Production included filming, scripts, professional actors and translation.

It is worth bearing in mind that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies work regularly and closely with West Coast Middle Eastern opposition groups, especially Iranians. If the Republicans in Congress are in need of something useful to do, they might put a little time into discovering the background to the anti-Muslim film that some Obama administration figures wanted to put forward as the basis of the Benghazi attack.

dansimpson

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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