Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly

The more we learn about the deadly attacks on our diplomatic installations in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya, the more questions arise.  Those questions need to be answered — and quickly.

Was the attack in Benghazi really just a spur-of-the-moment response to an obscure, homemade movie posted on the internet, or was it a planned, coordinated attack by a trained group of well-armed men?  Why was the security at the Benghazi consulate so inadequate — on 9/11, of all days?  Were U.S. security forces really equipped with guns with no bullets?  Did the U.S. receive any intelligence that warned us that an attack might be forthcoming?  Why didn’t the State Department respond to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo by immediately increasing protection at our other diplomatic outposts in the Middle East?  Was there an intelligence leak that allowed the attackers in Benghazi to determine where the ambassador was?  How did the U.S. somehow lose track of where Ambassador Chris Stevens was during the attacks?  How much sensitive information was lost when the Benghazi consulate was overrun?

The Justice Department and FBI are investigating and the State Department now is declining to answer questions about what happened in Benghazi because it considers the situation “a crime scene.”  The State Department won’t talk, it says, until the Justice Department investigation is concluded.  In my view, that’s not acceptable.  The Benghazi incident wasn’t a domestic criminal act, it was a foreign affairs fiasco that resulted in the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years.  The decisions that produced the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans need to be examined publicly, not hidden behind the guise of a “criminal investigation.”  The Senate Homeland Security Committee apparently has called for hearings, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee should do likewise.  Those hearings should move forward quickly, so that we can determine how to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again.

What happened in Benghazi and Cairo, and more recently at other U.S. diplomatic missions elsewhere in the world, is not a political issue — it is a crucial, threshold matter of national sovereignty and national security that shouldn’t be swept under the rug or deferred because we are in the midst of a presidential campaign.  We need to promptly determine where we fell short and decide what the United States must do to be able to adequately protect its embassies and diplomats on foreign soil.

The Value Of In Person, Versus In Writing

The recent attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have come on the heels of reports that President Obama has missed more than half of his daily intelligence briefing meetings.  And, in the wake of the embassy attacks, The Independent, a British newspaper, is reporting that the the U.S. received warnings of attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates but did not respond to them.  The Obama Administration flatly denies the latter report.

The Obama Administration doesn’t deny that the President has missed a lot of his daily intelligence briefings but argues that missing the meetings really isn’t that important because the President can get all the information he needs from briefing books.  As the writer of the linked article points out, that position stands in contrast to earlier reports in which Administration sources contended that the daily meetings were important and were well handled by the President.

I don’t doubt that President Obama gets lots of information in writing and reads it carefully.  In addition, some complicated concepts are better explained on paper.  Still, I think face-to-face interaction must play an important role.  Obviously, you can’t ask questions of a briefing book, but there are other important elements to in-person discussions.  The act of preparing for such meetings — finishing the review of briefing books in advance, preparing questions, deciding where to focus — itself has value for the person leading the meeting.  Attending such meetings shows that you attach importance to what the other participants do and thereby encourages them; attendance also permits give-and-take, brainstorming, and free-wheeling discussion that simply can’t be replicated by a written document or an email exchange.  Finally, humans communicate a lot of information through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and other methods that can’t be translated to writing.

I’m not saying that President Obama could have waded through intelligence information and pieced together clues that would have alerted him to the impending attacks if he had regularly attended the daily intelligence briefings, as President Bush apparently did.  What I am saying is that national security issues are a crucial part of the President’s job, and that attending meetings where the President participates, in person, in discussions about intelligence and threat issues is an important part of doing that job the right way.  I don’t know why President Obama has missed so many of these meetings, and what other events took priority on his schedule.  In view of this week’s events, however, I think he, and we, would be better served if he made it a point to make those meetings.

Should “Foreign Policy” Be Off Limits In A Presidential Election?

After the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Mitt Romney condemned the attack but also criticized a statement by the embassy that condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”  Romney called that statement “disgraceful,” and he was criticized by the Obama Administration, and others, for “launching a political attack” on that issue.  The tiff raises the question of whether criticism of an Administration’s handling of foreign policy issues is fair game in a presidential election.

There may have been a time when politics “ended at the water’s edge” and the parties spoke with one voice on foreign policy, but that era ended long ago.  All of the presidential campaigns I can remember — from the days of Vietnam War protests, to the Iranian hostage crisis, to the more recent debates about how to proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan — have involved some kind of foreign policy issues.  Indeed, often one of the presidential debates is devoted exclusively to “foreign policy.”  And the Obama Administration obviously feels that foreign policy issues are important; the recent Democratic convention emphasized the killing of Osama bin Laden and sounded the theme that the United States is more secure and respected abroad under the President.

The President is our Commander-in-Chief and establishes our foreign policy by appointing and instructing ambassadors.  It’s obviously an important role — and in a world made ever-smaller by technology and advanced weaponry, where many countries and groups have targeted America for harm, some argue it is the most important responsibility the American President has.  In view of that, how can anyone reasonably argue that the President’s approach to foreign policy shouldn’t be considered and debated during a presidential campaign?

That leaves the issue of whether Romney can fairly be criticized about the tone and timing of his comments.  Is it too harsh to call the mewling statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo disgraceful, and should he have waited until a day or two later before voicing his views?  I don’t think so, in either case.  Romney had every right to strongly criticize the official statement of an American embassy, which struck an unseemly appeasing tone that seemed to undercut the core American value of freedom of speech.  If Americans don’t stand up for our freedoms, they won’t be our freedoms for long.  And as far as timing goes, the Obama Administration itself quickly disavowed the embassy statement, too.  In view of that, and the fact that the embassy statement apparently wasn’t officially sanctioned, why shouldn’t Romney also be permitted to have his say?

I’m all in favor of robust free speech.  So long as Romney isn’t leaking state secrets or giving aid and comfort to the enemy, he should be free to voice his views about foreign policy in whatever way he sees fit — and American voters then have the right to agree or disagree with his statements and vote accordingly.  That’s how our system is supposed to work.

There’s A Big, Unfriendly World Out There

During this presidential campaign, Americans have focused on our troubled economy and other domestic problems.  Yesterday, we were rudely reminded, yet again, that there is a big, unfriendly world outside our borders.

On the anniversary of 9/11 — of all days! — an Egyptian mob stormed the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, tore down the American flag, and raised instead a black flag like that used by al Qaida that read: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his messenger.”  Hours later, in Benghazi, Libya, militiamen attacked a U.S. consulate, firing shots, throwing homemade bombs, and killing a U.S. State Department official and wounding another American.  In both cases the attacks were said to be provoked by a low-budget film about Mohammad produced by an American that Muslims consider offensive to Islam.

On the day of the Cairo attack, the U.S. Embassy there issued a curious statement that said: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.  Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”  The statement was condemned by many as a mealy-mouthed apology to Muslims, and the Obama Administration later indicated that the statement was not cleared and does not reflect the Administration’s views.

The United States has poured billions of dollars into the Middle East — Egypt has for years been one of the largest recipients of American aid — and supported the “Arab Spring” uprising in Libya with military assistance.  All of that is forgotten, of course, when some unknown movie supposedly bruises the tender religious sensibilities of fringe elements of the Islamic faith, and their grossly disproportionate response is to physically attack official American installations and kill an innocent diplomat who had nothing to do with the offensive film.

And, amidst it all, our embassy personnel think it appropriate to “condemn[] the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” and to invoke 9/11 in doing so?  What “continuing efforts” are they talking about, by the way?  Doesn’t that statement send an appalling message of weakness to the radicals who mean to do us harm?

Edited to Add:  The assault on the American consulate in Benghazi was even worse than first reported.  Four Americans were killed, including the American Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and two Marines who tried to defend the consulate against the attack.