OK, what should we make of Benghazi?

OK, what should we make of Benghazi?

By Steve Donnelly

Best Defense Libyan wars and Fox flak-catcher correspondent

In 2011, Ambassador Robert Ford boldly engaged his new assignment in Syria, brazenly and very publicly meeting with opposition leaders on the brink of armed rebellion against the al-Assad Regime.

Three times in as many months he had been surrounded by mobs of pro-government protesters, pelted with eggs, and attacked in embassy cars on the streets of Damascus. No phalanx of Blackwater. No body armor and helmet. No impenetrable motorcade of up-armored SUVs.

Was he nuts? What was he doing there?

Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin got the answer from the horse’s mouth for a September 29, 2011 article:

"When an ambassador makes a statement in a country that’s critical of that country’s government, when that government visits an opposition or a site where a protest is taking place, the statement is much more powerful — and the impact and the attention it gets is much more powerful if it’s an ambassador rather than a low-level diplomat," Ford told The Cable in an interview last week.

Ultimately, the Syrian pressure cooker was nearing boil, and Ford had to pull out.

Three years before, Ryan Crocker, himself a survivor of the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing, whose residence had been attacked in 1998 when he was Ambassador to Syria, and one of the first diplomats on the ground in Kabul after the Taliban’s departure in 2002, took up his post in Baghdad, not before or after conflict but in the midst of it, and charged with the dangerous and difficult task of US conflict stabilization and transition out of that historically conflict-ridden country.

With Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello killed along with 20 of his staff in the massive 2003 Canal Hotel bombing attack on the UN’s Baghdad office, Crocker was, no doubt, the next prime trophy for Iraqi bad guys, but even if almost suffocated at times by Blackwater, and US military and diplomatic security, he stayed on and directed the civilian side of the US Surge.

The unusual aspect of Crocker’s task in Iraq was not just to knowingly put his own life on the line, as many prominent diplomats have done in this region with inevitable results, but to institutional that role within the State Department ranks by managing the deployment of hundreds of Crocker-inspired diplomats out into the dangerous Iraqi landscape to support the civilian transition through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs that walked into Sadr City in 2008 behind the US crackdown after hundreds of mortars fell on Embassy Baghdad for more than a month, and regularly met in provincial capital buildings that were themselves routine targets for massive truck bombs, and firefights.

Surprisingly few of Crocker’s PRTs were killed in Iraq, primarily due to the robust US military presence there. But that is seldom the case in most unstable areas where US engagement is essential. From 1968 to 1979, a US Ambassador was killed in office on the average of one every two years, so its is not just about "our times."

Does that explain the professional tradition that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was following as he settled in for a restless night in the Benghazi compound after an important day of carrying the US flag into an unstable and emerging democracy? Risky business. Important work. Speaks for itself.

Ten Libyan guards, after all, were killed along with three other US civilians, before, finally, the US diplomatic survivors in Benghazi reached the marginal safety of the larger CIA compound a few blocks away, with help from Libyans.

In June 2012, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) held its annual conference at the snazzy Willard Hotel in Washington, DC ,for the national security elite to discuss waging wars in the face of budget cuts. No one, however, was lamenting any shortages of battleships, packhorses or the plumes for parade helmets. The masthead for the CNAS Conference said it all: "Rethinking U.S. Security: Navigating a World in Transition." As strongman dictators fall, things just get chaotic, especially in landscape characterized by non-state actors and factions with scores to settle with each other, transnational terror networks with scores to settle with us, riots trigger by Facebook, and cyber-attacks that can destroy a power plant grid by attacking the operating software. Much more complicated than the days of Gavrillo Princip and Professor Moriarty, and little to do with negotiating arms treaties in Helsinki.

The same hawks who cheered Crocker and his PRTs in Iraq, and Ford in Syria, including Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, know why US diplomats take these risks, especially in these fractured areas, underscoring Tom Ricks’ accurate observation of Fox News’s political "hyping" of Benghazi as a "wing of the Republican Party."

The oft said, "It’s complicated," explains the chaos of Benghazi. We may never know anything more than that those whose lives were lost bravely put them on the line for what they believed to be important enough to do so. What don’t you understand about that?

Stephen Donnelly is former senior planning advisor on Iraqi reconstruction for the Department of State.