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
<<
<
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
>
>>
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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT