Thomas Pickering is the quintessential diplomat. He's smart, says only what needs to be said and everyone in his presence knows that he has the best interests of United States at heart.
A few weeks ago I was in San Francisco attending the memorial service for Ambassador Chris Stevens, a colleague and friend from my own service as ambassador in the adjacent Republic of Malta.
The sad occasion that brought Thomas Pickering there that afternoon did not dissuade him from rejoicing in the qualities and example of Chris Stevens. Along with former Secretary of State George Schultz, these elder lions were taking pride in the courage of the young cub half their age who had performed so well in diplomacy and who died in her cause.
Stevens, they would say, was both exceptional and unexceptional. Exceptional in the language skill he had obtained in Arabic and the extent to which his diplomacy with Libyans, high and low, was greatly advanced by that respect. Yet, Stevens was also an exemplar of many in the Department who, in their tireless ways, manifest a commitment to the rule of law in uniquely structured democracies for the North African region, which would yield great dividend in political peace and economic return if, and it is a big if, the region can prevail over the equivalent of an Al Capone mob, only less well organized, more violent, and dedicated to a perverted Islamic fundamentalism that betrays all religious traditions, including Muslim.
Until now, the topic of Benghazi has been unhelpfully paralyzed by partisan bickering that has led to UN Ambassador Susan Rice graciously asking the president to not contemplate promoting her to the top spot at State when Mrs. Clinton resigns shortly.
It was undoubtedly savvy of Secretary Clinton to select Thomas Pickering as the chair of the Accountability Review Board that looked into how well or poorly the system of security was maintained on the night of 9/11/2012 when four brave Americans lost their lives to what has now been denominated a planned terrorist assault, and not the outgrowth of other violent protests that had occurred in the region. The Board wasted little time debating the unfortunate partisanship that sidelined Rice. Every thinking American is grateful for no further elaboration of the obvious: that it is imprudent to say more than intelligence revealed, and sometimes when you hope to catch the culprits quickly, it is better to say far less -- let alone the bad guys get away. Maybe the partisans ought to think through this sensitivity, but let's leave the non-issue in all its non-issue-ness.
So who was to blame for the loss of the ambassador and his brave colleagues, Smith, Woods and Dougherty?
• The perpetrators. Who are? Sorry, not sure yet (or maybe not sure we can catch them yet and even if we do in whose court system will the trials take place?), but there is an ongoing FBI investigation, and everything publicly known points to militias loosely affiliated with Libya's al Qaeda equivalent, Ansar al Sharia, or those who found the most RPGs lying about after the war (which in some respects is ongoing) and who by the death of Qaddafi have ended up with a lesser status.
• Chris Stevens is not to blame, even as he was hinted to be unduly optimistic given the trend line of violence and the still incomplete ability of the central government to provide basic civil order.
• The senior leadership of two Washington bureaus of the State Department: the Near East Bureau and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security which took its eye and generosity away from Libya to attend more closely to events in Egypt and Tunisia.
• Contributing to the security vulnerability is the inability of the new Libyan government to meet law enforcement and civil order expectations outside Tripoli. This will come in time with proper training, but in the interim they were not there.
• Intelligence can always be improved, but what is needed is not more necessarily, but that which truly conveys the extraordinary high risk.
• And the biggest culprit of them all: Congress, itself, in not providing the funding of the security requested.
The sub-text of the report is that those in charge of the Near East Bureau and Diplomatic Security dropped the ball in not being "pro-active," though the Review Board was careful to not find the senior leadership to be so derelict of duty as to warrant immediate discipline, though there is a not so veiled reference to discipline that may come at appropriate time.
Being polite in this manner, the Report does not name the individuals, but they are Jeffrey D. Feltman who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from August 2009 to June 2012 with the rank of Career Minister. He now works for Susan Rice at the UN -- oops, that should make him popular with certain Arizona and South Carolina members of the Senate. The Director of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security was during the attack, and is now, another careerist, Eric J. Boswell, again not explicitly named in the Report but like Assistant Secretary Feltman only by position.
Mr. Feltman and I used to arm wrestle over whether the president could actually carry out his inter-faith diplomacy initiative announced in Cairo. I thought it a good idea to fulfill the President's wish for promoting inter-faith understanding as a path promoting peace and respect in the Middle East, and let's just say that the NEA under Mr. Feltman was more in keeping with the rigidly unhelpful secular allergy to appreciating the importance of faith to the resolve of longstanding cultural war and antagonism. In fairness, Mr. Feltman's view was not alone in this, as the Washington bureaucracy at State, unlike other federal agencies, more rountinely than this constitutional law professor expected indulged a view contrary to the president or at odds with more fine-grain points of view in the Department's field offices (i.e., Embassies).
Mr. Feltman is a career foreign service officer; he didn't come into his position as I did with President Obama but like all subscribing to the oath, he does have a constitutional duty to try to follow the Executive's instruction. There is always a lot of moaning and groaning at Foggy Bottom over political appointees with the assumption that the "experts" have every answer. It is always unfortunate to pit political appointees against career officers. Mixing them has distinct democratic value. Besides fostering better allegiance to presidential direction, always favoring one over the other tends to be myopically closed to either the new ideas and approaches that presidential appointees bring with them from the academy or business, or to mistakenly leave the political ranks untutored in the careerist experience that informs the up to date perspectives brought by new blood.
Indulging the stereotype that the Washington careerist is always right is unlike, as I say, other federal agencies, and is a level of deference not based on need or fact.
Not every federal agency has this centralized preference as the Department of State. For example, the division heads over at Main Justice in Washington expect to get pushback regularly from the U.S. attorneys. Trust me, that's not the expectation at Foggy Bottom. Push back as an ambassador in defense of your country team point of view and you'll be popular with your local team, but often shunned by bureau managers who can make life miserable in a great variety of ways, including not sending needed resources.
Were I a member of the Senate hearing testimony about the Board's thoughtful report with recommendations so sound that Mrs. Clinton in the midst of recovering from a nasty fall from a nasty flu has immediately set the Department to fulfill them. That said, there are two notable omissions as I see it:
• Chris understood the risks
First, it would take nothing from Chris' heroism -- indeed, I believe it enhances it -- to note that Chris Stevens had a thorough and up-to-date understanding of the risks that took his life. The attack may have been a surprise, the risks were not. They were manifesting themselves in numerous ways not just to the intelligence community, but to Chris as well who proceeded nevertheless to do outreach of the most personable and effective kind of diplomacy. I know something of Chris's knowledge of risk personally since during my own Ambassadorship Chris and I discussed these risks in my living room in Malta, just prior to Chris taking up the role of special envoy in April 2011. In August 2012, Chris was in D.C. just prior to his reporting to Libya as new ambassador and on State Department video one can get directly from this fine man his own words describing the risk he assumed out of the belief that there is far more good than evil in the Libyan spirit, and given the freedom to manifest the former, it will.
I continue to petition the president and Mrs. Clinton for the privilege to take up Chris' work since my knowledge of the region, and prior successful evacuation of Embassy Tripoli personnel puts me in a uniquely capable place to do so.
• Why so few military assets?
The second matter left unaddressed -- in part because it deals more directly with DOD rather than the State Department -- is an answer to the question: Why wasn't there a greater Marine Security Guard presence, which is proposed to be enhanced, and more directly, why wasn't there more readily deployable assets to repel the terrorist attack on September 11, 2012 -- especially since DOD well knew of the increasing violence and that the Libyan fundamentalists had vowed revenge for an earlier drone killing of a high-ranking Libyan operative.
A related loose end stirred by the ugliness of the 2012 campaign that President Obama ordered available military to"stand down" is definitively found to be without any basis in fact. Indeed, quite the contrary, the available special deployments arrived as fast as transport would carry, and unlike the unmotivated leadership in Diplomatic Security, the DS members on the ground acted with courage and dispatch; indeed, Ty Woods and Glenn Dougherty gave their lives in defense of the Embassy and all who hear this international call to service.
Who could answer the concern about inadequate military rescuers? General Ham, the former head of AFRICOM, the military acronym for the regional military command, has left his post several years shy of retirement. The public deserves to hear his view. While beyond the scope of this analysis of the Benghazi killing, I am especially interested to see if the reason for lack of military resource being available and in position is reflective of the 2012 Mission Strategic Plan which I drafted along with my embassy-Malta colleagues. The Strategic Plan identified the lack of committed resources in central and eastern Africa as the by-product of an unfortunately incomplete appreciation for the opportunities for the southern hemisphere by the developed north. Unlike talk-show talking points, knowing whether the cavalry really is trained and available is an obviously necessary piece of Libya's diplomatic mission if it is to be successful - and it would betray Chris, Sean, Ty and Glenn if it we are not,