It is unclear when and if the House select committee’s Benghazi hearings will begin. Frankly, the probe into whether the White House tried to spin the attack as a fluke prompted by an anti-Muslim video is such small beans in the scheme of things it hardly merits a hearing. Yes, Ben Rhodes and the White House crew — surprise, surprise — were obsessed with deflecting blame rather than responding to a growing national security problem, but then we know that has been their modus operandi all along. Did Hillary Clinton lose sight of the post-civil war Libyan security situation? Obviously, or the ambassador and three other Americans wouldn’t have been killed.
Benghazi was (and, to a limited extent, still is) important because of what it tells us about the Obama-Clinton foreign policy. However, there is much more dramatic evidence of their failure to recognize that al-Qaeda was on the march, not in retreat. We know that Iraq could not be abandoned with no ill effects, hence the need for the Obama and Clinton to claim they really didn’t decide to do what the president promised to do and later bragged he had done. We know it was a fateful error to ignore the opportunity for a swift ouster of Bashar al-Assad in Syria — a move that would have nipped the Islamic State in the bud (Clinton admits) and saved a couple hundred thousand lives.
So rather than Benghazi, the select committee should restyle and expand its investigation and include the Senate if the GOP takes the majority. Like the 9/11 Commission that looked at how we lost sight of a threat to the homeland from al-Qaeda and the intelligence and military mistakes that led to the result, it seems a committee investigating what went wrong in the Middle East and what we need to do to fix it is again in order. Benghazi was a symptom and a hint of what would come; now we have the full-blown epidemic of violence, genocide and instability throughout the region. It would be a good idea to start the investigation and take remedial steps this time before the homeland is hit again, as the administration’s own officials predict will be a real possibility if the Islamic State secures its own swath of Middle East territory.
As I see it, there are three components essential to a useful investigation of the Middle East meltdown:
First, how did the administration miss the al-Qaeda comeback? The intelligence committee denies it was an intelligence failure. Was this, then, a refusal to accept inconvenient truths that conflicted with an ideological predisposition? Why did the president falsely believe al-Qaeda was on its heels? And did we make the problem worse by setting a withdrawal date for troops from Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s worth looking at hysterical, hypothetical scenarios like the ones spun by Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to justify not acting in Syria. Were they the result of White House pressure, military careerism by those wanting to ingratiate themselves with the president or sheer incompetence?
Second, it’s important to understand the scope and depth of the problem. We have failed or failing nation states in Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. We have al-Qaeda and the Islamic State on the one hand and Iran’s terror network on the other. What do we need to accomplish and what steps will lead us to that end? This is basic policy definition that more than five years into his presidency Obama never did. Staying out of things is not a strategy; indeed, it’s a recipe for total chaos.
And finally, just as the 9/11 Commission made recommendations about the military, intelligence and diplomatic aspects of the problem, a helpful committee would do the same for the Middle East meltdown. This is supposed to be done by the administration in the quadrennial defense review, but experts from Democratic and Republican administrations know this was not done in a serious way. We’ve already had an esteemed bipartisan board reach findings on defense spending, and its co-chairs should testify before the committee. Likewise, it’s essential to have a top-to-bottom review of our policy toward Iran. Whatever it is, the administration has not managed to halt Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons or check its aggression against neighbors (which includes state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah). What leverage do we need and how can we deploy this? Given the threats we face, what National Security Agency programs, drone policy and enemy-combatant arrangements do we need?
A committee like this would provide an immense service. We have more than two years left in the Obama presidency and it’s critical to help his administration, to the extent possible, reverse course. Second, it’s an essential learning opportunity for pols and the public alike. How are we going to summon the political support to do what is necessary to protect the country? Start with a top-to-bottom investigation of what went wrong and what we need to do to fix it.