POLITICS
05/13/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Toward A Better Benghazi Inquiry

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The state of play on the ongoing Benghazi inquiry, in terms of the partisan backbiting, seems to be rather simple. GOP interlocutors on the House Oversight Committee seem to believe that they are on to something important enough to merit continued attention. Their Democratic opponents believe that most of what Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and his colleagues are up to is steeped in politics, and so they are dismissive of the proceedings.

I'm a bit different. I feel that there is a worthwhile inquiry to be had and Issa and company are not currently having it. But I'm not dismissive of their efforts because I feel they are rooted purely in politics -- though there's plenty of politics to be had. Rather, I'm dismissive because the current probe is obsessed with matters that haven't managed to journey outside the realm of the superficial.

To wit, there seem to be two matters under investigation. The first has to do with whether or not the response offered in what was clearly a dire emergency was adequate. With the benefit that hindsight offers, critics-slash-"whistleblowers" have stepped forward to suggest that the military response was lacking. The Pentagon has officially pushed back on these claims, suggesting that they offered up an according-to-Hoyle response and that they were not in the position to do more than they did. Absent some dynamic, evidence-based break in the case, this is probably going to end up a "he-said/another he-said" argument that won't be resolved until such time as the military has another emergency to which to respond, at which point maybe one side will prove to have been correct. Or not!

The other critical track the inquiry is on involves inter- and intra-agency memo-mummery. What talking points got changed and why. What low-level functionary took the blame so that principals didn't end up looking embarrassed. How much energy was spent on a State Department-wide cover-your-ass effort, and how it compares to the energy spent on properly and efficiently disclosing the relevant information to the public.

(A third thing that is being investigated is how well prepared the State Department was to deal with the predictable contingency of an attack on their facilities. There, we have consensus: the State Department was not well prepared and the State Department officially agrees. Thomas Pickering, who ran the State Department's Accountability Review Board, concluded that the "changing situation in Benghazi was not understood either on the ground, or in Washington to the degree to which it represented a danger." If that's the State Department's official consensus on the matter, the only thing left to do is determine which lawmaker can shout the loudest about it.)

That said, there's no doubt that all of the agency ass-covering is bad and embarrassing, and I wish that governmental culture in the United States was vastly different from the way it is. But the reason I cited Kris Belisle's explanation of how Washington works the other day ("The number one goal of most agencies is, frankly, to try and make the principal [Washington-speak for the head of the agency] look good, no matter what the actual facts are, even if it means lying to or misleading the press") was to make a point about how hopelessly prevalent this aspect of governmental culture is.

If you strip all government agencies down to their constants, through some sort of regression analysis, what you will be left with is bad lighting, indoor plumbing, and a small army of bureaucrats striving to shield their superiors from cock-ups.

The one thing, of course, that makes Benghazi stand out from all the rest is the fact that four Americans are dead. But their deaths did not come about because the State Department engaged in the aforementional CYA mission. Rather, their deaths are a natural consequence of the fact that the United States intervened in Libya in the first place. And if we're going to continue a Benghazi inquiry, we should do so in a way that questions the wisdom of the intervention itself. Clearly there is reason to believe it was very unwise. But it's the original policy of Libyan intervention that deserves to be litigated -- not the after-the-fact bureaucratic touch fouls.

Of course, the reason we shan't be litigating the policy is fairly obvious -- many of Benghazi's critics are simultaneously in favor of a similar intervention in Syria. Many of the same conditions present in Libya are present there as well, chief among them being a sketchy "rebel" force that includes many fighters who are just as happy harming Americans as they are battling the Assad regime. The primary difference is that an intervention on Syria would be much harder to pull off. If we actually took a searing look at the Libyan intervention itself, the dubiety of such an intervention in Syria would be more pronounced.

But that's not what's happening and so it's hardly a shock that, with Syria, we have similar calls for a "no-fly zone" and "arming the rebels" in a way that ensures that only the "right" rebels get arms, all of which is supposed to be pulled off without having to put "boots on the ground." The mental disconnect between all the anger-banging about Benghazi and the screeching for more intervening in Syria reached an apotheosis on ABC News' "This Week," when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seamlessly transitioned from calling Benghazi a "cover-up" to insisting that U.S. forces should intervene in such a way that allow Syrian rebels to have their own "Benghazi."

And, yes, that is precisely what McCain proposed, without so much as a trace of irony (emphasis mine):

MARTHA RADDATZ: But how do you keep out good rebels, and bad rebels? You've got al-Qaeda rebels, running around...

JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you. Martha, these are legitimate questions you're asking. But they are there. And you put them inside Syria, they then have a Benghazi. Then they have a place to organize, to -- to identify the right people. These Jihadists aren't -- there aren't that many of them, they're just so good. Because they've been fighting all over the Middle East for all these years, and they're not afraid to die. But we could still organize a legitimate and non-Jihadist group that are already there.

Because it worked out so spectacularly the last time.

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