Skip to main content

Benghazi blame game is useless

By Anthony H. Cordesman, Special to CNN
updated 3:46 PM EST, Wed January 23, 2013
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years:
HIDE CAPTION
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anthony Cordesman: Questions for Hillary Clinton on Benghazi attack inevitable, important
  • But political blame game useless, a discouraging message to diplomats, military advisers, he says
  • He says in hindsight, warnings, pleas for support mistakenly make crisis seem obvious
  • Writer: U.S. must focus forward: encourage, support risk-takers doing crucial work in field

Editor's note: Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow CSIS on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Politics are politics, and partisan congressional challenges over the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last September were inevitable.

But while some of the questions Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked in her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bordered on politics at their worst, some represented democracy at its best: A legitimate challenge of how the government works. The fact is, we do need to ask serious questions about the way our diplomats function, how they are deployed and protected.

In her responses, Clinton took responsibility, as the top official in every department always must. The question now, however, is what, if anything, will we really learn from the events that led to the deaths of Stevens and his colleagues?

Anthony H. Cordesman
Anthony H. Cordesman

Do we actually learn something from their courage and sacrifice, and the similar experience of other American diplomats and officers that have faced similar attacks in the past? Or do we go on playing a pointless blame game, creating a climate that discourages our diplomats, U.S. military advisory teams and intelligence officers from taking necessary risks -- and relies even more on fortifying our embassies.

Three lessons here. The first: Virtually every post mortem that relies on the blame game has the same result. There is always someone who asked for more resources and warned of the risk before the event. There are always enough intelligence indicators so that once you go back -- knowing the pattern of actual events -- it becomes possible to predict the past with 20-20 hindsight.

The problem is that the post mortems and hearings tend to be useless. Every prudent security officer has always asked for more; the indicators that could provide warning with 20-20 hindsight will still be buried in a flood of other reporting that warns of crises that don't take place; U.S. officials will still have to deal with what intelligence experts call "noise" -- the vast amount of reporting and other data that make it impossible to sort out the right information until the event actually occurs and the patterns are known. All of this makes it hard to know what request or warning ever matters.

Opinion: Algeria hostage crisis shows jihadists on rise

Yes, intelligence and warning can always be improved if the post mortem is realistic and objective. But the resulting improvements will never be enough. No one will ever assess all the risks correctly, U.S. diplomats and other Americans will be vulnerable when they operate in a hostile environment, and risk-taking will remain inevitable.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The second lesson is that we cannot deal with crises like the political upheavals in the Arab world, or the more direct threats that countries like Iran and North Korea can pose, unless our diplomats and military advisers take risks -- and more casualties -- in the process.

Stevens and those around him did what had to be done. These are the teams that can help lead unstable countries towards democracy and stability. They are the crucial to our counterterrorism efforts in the field and to building up the military security capabilities of developing states. They are key to uniting given factions, creating effective governance, and persuading states to move toward development and greater concern for human rights.

They can only be effective if they are on the scene, work with the leaders and factions involved, and often go into harms way where there are terrorist and military threats. Like Stevens, they cannot wait for perfect security, stay in a safe area, or minimize risks and deal with the realities of Libya, filled with local power struggles, extremist elements and potential threats.

We need risk-takers. We need them in any country that is going through the kind of upheavals taking place in Libya, as well as in countries where our enemies operate, and semi-war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. We need diplomats, U.S. military advisory teams, and intelligence officers that reach far beyond our embassies and go into high risk zones. We need to reward and honor those risk-takers, not those who shelter in safety and avoid the risks they should take or fear their career will be damaged if anyone is killed or hurt.

Opinion: Algeria crisis is a wakeup call for America

Clinton's heated exchange over Benghazi
Chaffetz: Clinton faces hard questions
Clinton testimony emotional, fiery

The third lesson is that we do need to steadily strengthen our ability to provide secure mobility, better intelligence, better communications, and better protection for those diplomats, U.S. military advisory teams and intelligence officers. We need to be able to better provide emergency help to those American NGO personnel and businessmen who take similar risks.

We need both an administration and a Congress that look beyond the blame game and understand that some things are worth spending money on. We need them to understand that what we once called the Arab Spring is clearly going to be the Arab Decade, and we face different but equally real risks in the field in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

It is far better -- and cheaper even, in the medium term -- to fund strong U.S. country teams, military advisers, counterterrorism teams and development efforts than to let nations collapse, to let extremists take over, to lose allies, and see American NGOs and businesses unable to operate.

We need to see what new methods and investments can protect our people in the field and reduce the risks they should be taking. The answer may be special communications, intelligence system, helicopters and armored vehicles, emergency response teams and new career security personnel to replace contractors and foreign nationals.

What the answer is not is partisan blame, risk avoidance, punishing those who do take risks for the result, and failing to make the improvements in security for risk takers -- while building larger fortress embassies. If you want to honor the Americans lost in the line of duty, focus on the future and not the past.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anthony Cordesman

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT