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Reducing U.S. risk helps terrorists

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Buried in the scathing critique of the State Department’s performance during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi is a description of what may become the “new normal” in hot spots abroad — where U.S. diplomats cannot rely on local security and must consider “when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.”

The Accountability Review Board’s report talks about augmenting U.S. diplomatic security and maintaining America’s presence around the globe. But realistically, given the fact that the report triggered the removal of four top State Department officials, it’s likely to reinforce the caution that’s already evident in U.S. operations overseas. In a chaotic world, U.S. diplomats will probably have even less contact with the people they need to reach.

This risk aversion is partly a result of a Washington culture (media included) that treats every mistake as a scandal. In the Benghazi case, the uproar was led by Republicans who saw a preelection opportunity to bash the Obama administration. The implication was that it was President Obama’s fault that four Americans had died in a dangerous place. Election Day has come and gone, but the report’s recommendations for mitigating risk will live on.

Big mistakes were made in Benghazi, and people should be held accountable. But the brave officers who staff American posts in crisis zones know how dangerous the work is. They already chafe at rules that prevent them from leaving protected compounds without elaborate security, and those strictures will grow only more severe. Journalists couldn’t do their jobs overseas without taking risks, and the same is true for diplomats and intelligence officers.

The report correctly warns against “an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.” But I fear its finger-pointing will reinforce Washington’s zero-defect mindset and produce precisely that outcome.

The passages that caught my eye were the recommendations on security. The State Department must move “beyond traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts,” the report argues. Specifically, the department should “urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risks and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas.” The “acceptable” threat tolerance may become close to zero.

The report suggests several ways to assess vulnerability, but one is crucial: Officials should pay “constant attention to changes in the situation, including when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.” In the future, an official will be risking career suicide (not to mention the possible loss of colleagues’ lives) if he or she doesn’t pull the plug when threats arise.

The Benghazi situation was horrifying. Because Libya had no effective police or army, the State Department was relying chiefly on what the report describes as the “armed but poorly skilled” members of a local militia called the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade. But the report notes that on the day of Ambassador Chris Stevens’s fatal visit, “February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying [consulate] vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours.”

The militia fighters were worse than useless: They didn’t try to stop the attack on the mission, and they didn’t answer the CIA base chief’s pleas a few minutes later for backup machine guns.

Here’s the problem that the report doesn’t state but which is crucial for the future: In too many parts of the world, the United States relies as it did in Benghazi on forces that are tribal militias or little better. To take two examples I’ve seen personally: For years, Lebanese militias provided the only real protection for U.S. diplomats in both Christian and Muslim areas of Beirut. In Afghanistan, tribal militias and local warlords have long protected U.S. supply convoys. In many countries where the official security forces are weak, the United States works with private security organizations that are a mix of locals and Blackwater-style American or European contractors.

The report highlights a final aspect of the new normal: The al-Qaeda terrorist threat is “fragmenting” and morphing. The model now isn’t mega-attacks against the homeland, as happened on Sept. 11, 2001, but what the report calls a “growing, diffuse range” of local operatives who hit American targets wherever they have a chance, as on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi.

Looking back at the 9/11 attacks, I think many Americans understand now the danger of an overreaction that undermines U.S. values and interests. The same is true of the Benghazi attack. The surest way to empower the new terrorist gangs would be to withdraw from U.S. diplomatic missions.

davidignatius@washpost.com

More on this topic: The Post’s View: Benghazi report is important first step on accountability David Ignatius: In Benghazi timeline, CIA errors but no evidence of conspiracy David Ignatius: Lingering questions about Benghazi David Ignatius: In Egypt and Libya, radicals jockeying for power

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