Commentary by Lt. Colonel John Lewis Cook, USA (ret.)
For weeks now, the Benghazi tragedy has been a major story in Washington. It’s safe to say that now, most Americans are aware of what happened to our consulate there back in September. Some points are no longer in dispute. Four Americans died over a number of hours when the consulate was attacked multiple times. No rescue effort was launched in a timely matter that could have possibly saved them. If this were a criminal trial, both the prosecution and defense would stipulate to these facts and move forward.
However, this is Washington, where the favorite game is the blood sport of raw politics, where each side fires on the other with whatever ammunition is available, hoping to inflict serious casualties. The Republicans accuse the administration of deliberately mischaracterizing the attack as spontaneous out of fear this would destroy President Obama’s carefully built narrative that it wasn’t terrorism. As a result, the counterterrorism brain trust was not convened. Neither was a rescue attempted. The Democrats fired back quickly, accusing the Republicans of playing politics with national security and engaging in vicious, personal attacks against senior administration officials. And so it goes, with each side firing volley after volley, not so much searching for the truth as the desire to cause damage. Yet, somewhere between these polarized positions lies the real explanation of this tragedy since neither side has prevailed in this slugfest.
Current body count stands at four, all from the Department of State. Susan Rice is no longer a candidate for Secretary of State and three bureaucrats from Foggy Bottom were thrown under the bus. All this was on the diplomatic side since the State Department was responsible for the consulate security and clearly, security was not up to standards. That will, no doubt, be addressed and corrected. However, once the attack began, the situation quickly turned into a military issue if a rescue attempt was in the cards, and, at this point, the State Department was no longer a player. Diplomats are of little value in a fire fight under any circumstances. In any event, these two issues must be separated and dealt with individually.
The most troubling part of the Benghazi story was not that the consulate was under protected. Rather, it was the rescue attempt that never happened. Why not? Aside from all the hype, this has to be carefully examined in an objective manner, free of recrimination and personal attacks. This is where the postmortem should focus now, not the lack of security. So why was no rescue mounted immediately? I think Secretary of Defense Panetta gave an unwittingly strong indicator back in late October when he told reporters, “The basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.” He went on to explain that, under these conditions, forces simply could not be put at risk in this confused situation. On it’s face, this explanation seemed quite reasonable and the reporters dutifully reported it. And why not? After all, this doctrine is practiced daily in official Washington. No senior bureaucrat would dream of walking into a meeting or conference without knowing what’s on the agenda. More importantly, is there a hidden agenda that could blow up in his face? These people are very risk-adverse and they did not work their into the highest levels of government by being easily ambushed or blindsided. This explains why important meetings are often cancelled on short notice and why some officials suddenly become ill. We are all a product of our experience and, unfortunately, Mr. Panetta is no exception.
Let’s give Mr. Panetta the benefit of the doubt and agree that he honestly believes this. If he does believe it, then it exposes a serious misunderstanding of the military’s most basic reason to exist. If we carried this view to its logical conclusion, we would never deploy military forces anywhere because real-time information and ground truth are rarely available to the men leading the charge and what is available is usually wrong. The men on the ground understand this reality and they accept it. That’s why they are very good at adapting to rapid changes in a hostile environment. They practice various scenarios and contingencies all the time because they know, whatever they are told, the situation they encounter will usually be different. Of course, they have no political ambitions so they can focus on what they do best. This is a cautionary tale that official Washington should take to heart. This brutal fact is what separates line units in combat from bureaucrats in Washington. They are from two different cultures and this is what divides them. Neither culture fully understands the other.
If this is truly what happened, then Mr. Panetta does deserve credit for thinking he was doing the right thing, but he is wrong this time. It appears that he is taking responsibility for not responding to the frantic pleas for help once the attack started and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has provided him some cover. However, both of these men were in Washington and they are the senior leaders of the Department of Defense, not the Department of State. We have every right to expect sterner stuff from these guys. Had local ground commanders been given the mission, a rescue effort would have been launched immediately. That’s how the system works. It’s called the chain of command and, when used, it works with incredible efficiency. However, in this case, it was obviously not even initiated because the Secretary of Defense was not convinced it would succeed. The truth is, no military operation has the luxury of guaranteed success, no matter how carefully planned or how critical. There was no guarantee on May 6th, 1944 that we would be successful, yet no one called it off for fear of failure. However, without making the effort, we can guarantee failure. This is what leadership is about, what it has always been about.
If we learn anything from Benghazi, it is this. Even the Secretary of Defense must leave operational decisions to those commanders closest to the operation, not thousands of miles away and trust them, not second guess them. Tell them what needs to be done, give them what they need. and leave them alone. They can perform quite well without interference from Washington. In the meantime, Washington will, no doubt, continue to conduct its own kind of political warfare. That will not change. However, the military should be left out of these purely partisan food fights and not get chewed up in the process.
About the Author
Lieutenant Colonel John Lewis Cook, United States Army (Retired), “served as the Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, Afghanistan, with responsibility for developing the force structure for the entire Afghan National Police. As of 2012, this force totals 157,000. From March 2008 until August 2012, his access and intimate associations with all levels of the Afghan government and coalition forces have provided him with an unprecedented insight into the policies which will determine the outcome of the war. It is this insight, coupled with his contacts and associations throughout Afghanistan that form the basis of Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure.
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