Saturday, January 5, 2013

The State Department report on the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.

The U.S. State Department recently released a report on the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and four other people by Jihadists in Benghazi, Libya on September 11 of this past year. Briefly, a well-armed militia attacked the U.S. consulate’s Benghazi compound, setting its buildings on fire. Ambassador Stevens and a security officer, who were visiting from Tripoli, the capital city, died of smoke inhalation. An hour-and-a-half later, militia members followed a CIA truck to its secretly located building some distance away, called in State Department documents, “the Annex.” They used RPGs to kill two CIA agents. Everyone now agrees, that the attack was not, as the Obama administration first suggested, a spontaneous demonstration in response to an inflammatory video depicting Islam as corrupt and murderous. Instead, it was planned and executed by well-armed jihadists.

In response to the killing, the State department convened a task force to review why security at the consulate was insufficient. The resulting report, released this past month, is thoughtful and judicious, and is anchored in a discourse of what it means to effectively assess and mitigate threats. The report exemplifies the good practice of “after-action reviews” through which leaders and executives debrief a mission or program and try to learn from their mistakes. Yet the report misses the forest for the trees and is peculiarly off-key. The question is why?

Consider three sensible arguments the report writers make.

·      The consulate's vulnerability was heightened because personnel seconded to it were relatively inexperienced, and often on temporary assignments of less than 40 days. The result was “diminished institutional knowledge, continuity and mission capacity.”

·      Following good practice, consulate officials had well-defined “tripwires,” such as the city’s crime rate, or attacks on westerners, which could alert consulate staff to the possibility of an attack on the consulate compound. But, the report goes on to argue, these, “Tripwires are too often treated only as indicators of threat rather than essential trigger mechanisms for serious risk management decisions.”

·      Communication between Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi “occurred collegially at the working level,” but it was, “constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at senior bureau levels.”

This discourse has all the earmarks of reasonableness and rationality. It applies the lessons of threat assessment and management, and makes recommendations for better results in the future, e.g., better communication at senior levels, better staffing practices, and a more thoughtful use of tripwires. But I want to argue that the report is nonetheless misleading and insufficient because it is focused at the tactical rather than strategic level. It pays no attention to a wider narrative that shaped the Obama administration’s decision making at the level of foreign policy; a policy that colored all tactical decisions. This narrative presumes that the U.S., through the judicious use of military measures and modern “nation-building” practices, can help people in lawless settings evolve democratic and civil societies.  Indeed, this narrative is why the Obama administration at first suggested that the attack on the consulate was spontaneous, in response to an anti-Islam video produced in the U.S. It was not that jihadists, unleashed by a revolutionary situation the U.S. helped create, were out to kill us as well as their Libyan enemies. Rather, we had inadvertently trampled on their religious sensibilities.

I want to argue in this blog post that the purpose of the State Department report was not to improve practices, but to protect decision makers from the psychological burden of wrestling with the contradictions and tensions implicit in this wider narrative. It functioned as what organizational psychodynamics calls, a “social defense;” a collective process of psychological denial.   

Consider how the report fails. It turns out that senior State Department officials gave the Ambassador wide berth to make his own threat assessment decisions. The vision of local officials applying protocols, some acceptable, some not, to secure the consulate’s safety, or of seniors officers collaborating, or not, on consulate safety, is misleading. As the report itself notes, “The ambassador did not see a direct threat of this nature and scale on the U.S. mission in the overall negative trend line of security incidents (in Benghazi) from spring to summer of 2012.” In other words, Steven’s discounted signals of threat. The report goes on to note, “His status as the leading U.S. government advocate on Libya policy, and his expertise on Benghazi in particular, caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments.”

This suggests that the State Department after-action review should have been focused on two entirely different questions. First, what compelled State Department officials, perhaps against their better judgment, to defer to Stevens, and second, why did Stevens discount signals of threat?

Why the deference? After his death, Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, and others referred to Stevens as the ideal diplomat. Describing Stevens and his colleagues, Obama said, “They knew the danger, and they accepted it. They didn't simply embrace the American ideal. They lived it." There seems little doubt that Stevens’ actions during the uprising against Gaddafi, and this was before he was appointed ambassador, were deservedly considered heroic. As ABC, the news organization, reports, “During the early days of the Libyans' fight to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi, Christopher Stevens, not yet ambassador, wrangled a ride on a Greek cargo ship and sailed into the rebels' stronghold city of Benghazi.” (Benghazi, it should be noted, was the seat of the revolution.) The ABC report goes on to note, “He arrived at a time when the crackle of gunfire could be heard each night. Stevens and his team didn't even have a place to stay, but found space in a hotel briefly, moving out after a car bomb went off in the parking lot.” Stevens and a political officer, “spent their days and nights building up the U.S. government’s first on-the-ground contacts with the Transitional National Council, as well as with members of the emerging civil society and newly freed news media.”

There is also little doubt that Stevens represented and deeply believed in the democratic ideal. Consider for example the video Stevens released, shortly after he was appointed ambassador, through which he addressed the Libyan people. At one point in the video, shot in Washington D.C., he says, “I am in Washington preparing for my assignment. As I walk around the monuments and memorials commemorating courageous men and women who made America what it is, I am reminded that we too went through challenging periods. When America was divided by a bitter civil war 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln had the vision and courage to pull the nation together and helped us move forward toward a shared goal of peace and prosperity.” (In the video he is at the Lincoln Memorial). In other words, he is suggesting that the Libyan civil war and the U.S. civil war were cut from the same cloth. This means that Libyans, despite their country’s history of violence, fragmentation and oppression, can aspire to the kind of constitutional and civil order that U.S. citizens, for the most part, have come to enjoy.

The reference to Lincoln is particularly telling, and highlights the strengths and limitations of what is called the “idealist” as opposed to the “realist” strain in U.S. foreign policy.  Lincoln is usefully thought of as the second, or in fact the “true” father of his nation, and his greatness lies partly in his ability to use force in the service of civilization, without losing his own moral compass, humanness and civility. But it takes a distinctive culture to produce such a leader. We could say that Stevens’ analogy, and the strain of idealism he represents, is partly hope, but also partly projection, imagining that the social context that gave rise to Lincoln can be replicated in Libya. This projection of American history and sensibilities onto other cultures and countries reinforces the belief that they can traverse our path to democracy.

We have now one plausible account of the deference,  but can we account for Stevens' judgments about the situation? One thing we can rule out; Stevens was by no means naïve, and understood the risks he was personally facing. His diary, found by a CNN reporter at the burned and now abandoned consulate, shows that he believed Al Qaeda was targeting him for assassination.

In this regard,  while the discourse about risk assessment and mitigation in the report is reasonable, it fails in one elementary way, and on its own terms. The report does not consider the relationship between risks and opportunities. That a setting such as Benghazi is risky, is a given. The question is, what is to be to be gained by having a consulate in Benghazi despite these risks? Or to put the matter differently, what were the risks of not having a consulate in the city?

I think the answer is apparent, and was the basis for Stevens' judgment. For the same reason that Benghazi was the seat of the uprising against Gaddafi, it was thus also a threat to creating a centralized political authority in Tripoli. The tribes in eastern Libya had long been hostile to Tripoli’s power, and resented their subordination to Gaddafi’s army and his associated elites in business and politics. As we have seen elsewhere, a revolutionary situation is just as likely, if not more, to lead to chaos and fragmentation, as to a new political order based on representation and civility. After all, this is one reason the CIA had established a sizeable station in Benghazi to begin with. Its senior personnel understood that the tribes in Eastern Libya, wanted to secure their rightful share of weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal, and they worried that Al Qaeda inspired jihadists would get them.

This suggests that Stevens established a consulate in Benghazi, described as “lawless town,” in the State Department report, to begin the work of linking the elites of Benghazi to Tripoli. He planned to do this by helping to build what are called “civil society” institutions, such as businesses, schools, government agencies, NGOs, courts and media. For example, one State Department memo, released in a cache of memos to the world- wide-web, refers to U.N. supported initiatives such as;

·      Preparing lawyers for constitution drafting.
·      Engaging lawyers in the Libyan diaspora to train local lawyers.
·      Forming a local chapter of NAPEO, the “North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity,” to educate participants about public-private partnerships.
·      Ensuring that the TOEFL English language exam is offered in Libya, and,
·      Training aspiring entrepreneurs in business skills.

These are practical steps, familiar to practitioners of nation-building.  But the reader, unaccustomed to this work, can’t help but wonder if they are off-kilter and potentially irrelevant efforts in the context of a lawless city in a nation of tribes. Indeed, one measure of this irrelevance is a peculiar paragraph in another State Department memo, dated December 2011. It notes that, “Many Libyans have said that the U.S. presence (in Benghazi) has a salutary calming effect (my underlining) on easterners who are fearful that the new focus on Tripoli could once again lead to their neglect and exclusion from reconstruction and wealth distribution, and (therefore) strongly favor a permanent U.S. presence in the form of a full consulate.” In other words, the powerful tribes and families in Benghazi would welcome a U.S. presence to protect them and assure them their fair share of the spoils, rather than depend on their own militias and force of arms. This may be where idealism shades into naiveté.

In addition, the narrative of democratic empowerment protected senior officials in the state department and in the Obama administration from the psychological burden of facing the unfortunate that, that from 2003 on, the U.S. considered Gaddafi to be an ally. As a Wikipedia entry notes, in December of that year,

“Libya renounced its possession of weapons of mass destruction and agreed to decommission its chemical weapons program. Relations with the U.S. improved as a result, while U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Gaddafi in the Libyan desert in March 2004. The following month, Gaddafi travelled to the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels signifying improved relations between Libya and the EU, the latter of whom ended its remaining sanctions in October.

Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reported, from 2003 to 2011, the CIA had close ties to Gaddafi’s secret services!

 Let us return to the two questions that I suggested the State Department Report should have addressed. What compelled State Department officials, perhaps against their better judgment, to defer to Stevens, and why did Stevens discount signals of threat? The answers are now apparent. First, Stevens was the ideal representative of the idealist strain, yet he had the physical courage, the realistic perspective and the diplomatic skills to operate in a lawless setting. Second, Stevens believed that absent civil society institutions in Benghazi, the country could break apart under the press of tribal warfare. The risks of not having a consulate in Benghazi were greater than the risks of having one. Stevens did not discount signals of threat, he simply saw and responded to a larger one.

It is a common feature of strategies and their associated narratives, that they contain tensions and contradictions. This is the underside of their breadth. The U.S. wants to advance democracy through open means, but it cannot and has not discounted the reality of armed non-state enemies who have no history of living in democratic settings. Indeed, this is why the CIA had its own secret annex in Benghazi, while the State Department had its public consulate. (There is good reason to believe that Jihadists only discovered the Annex when, after the fire at the consulate compound, they followed a CIA truck from the consulate to the CIA’s building). The physical separation of the two, while based on the need for secrecy, also symbolized the tensions of integrating the idealist and the realist orientations.

The U.S., for better or worse, is impelled to represent democracy in the clash of civilizations. But at the same time it has built up a security apparatus that enables it to protect U.S. security, political, and economic interests without regard to who is the “good guy,” or democrat; hence the alliance with Gaddafi prior to his overthrow. I also think Stevens was considered a hero not only because he was a courageous practitioner of what is called “expeditionary diplomacy,” but because he had a realistic understanding of the threats the U.S. faced and an abiding belief in the power of democratic ideals and practices to mitigate these threats. He offered for a moment, a synthesis of the idealist and realist strains, and his murder suggests that he paid with his life for trying to integrate the two.

We can now understand why the State Department report was inadequate and why it focused on tactical issues. Of course, the task force was not authorized to consider issues of strategy. But its focus on tactics also helps deflect attention from the painful realization that the work of integrating the two strains of foreign policy, work that every president has to take up, is difficult, consequential, and can lead to the murder of valued and honored diplomats who represent the “best the country can offer.” This is why I called the report a “social defense.” It deflects attention from what is guilt inducing, painful and has surprised us, to what can be managed and predicted. 

There may be a lesson here as well about "after-action" reviews. They may fail to give us real insight into our failures if we do not consider the strategic context that shaped our decisions.

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