- - Tuesday, May 21, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One missing element in the review of Benghazi is the role of the military — a relevant issue, it would seem, since we intervened in Libya in a military operation that Hillary Rodham Clinton recently described as “an unprecedented historic partnership between NATO and the Arab League.” Put another way, the intensive focus on the State Department — as illustrated by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s pending private interview of diplomat Thomas Pickering alone, without Adm. Mike Mullen, his co-chairman of the State Department Accountability Review Board — may be too narrow.

The considerable work done by the media (recently) and the various House committees has narrowed the issue clusters to basically two. First, where did U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice get the reference to the YouTube video for her five TV appearances, since it was never in the talking points at any stage of their drafting? And second, were orders given after the attack for responsive military rescue elements to stand down, and why was there no stand-by or contingency plans for a military response to foreseeable military actions? After all, Libya was a war zone, not just any old dangerous mission someplace.


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Neither set of issues is really the expertise of Mr. Pickering, whose charge for the review effort was to evaluate the security arrangements made by the State Department before the fact — not a review of the talking points or the military capacity to respond after the attack had begun. Only the military can answer the second set of issues, but the Defense Department has been largely absent from the debate, including the now well-known talking points dispute between the CIA and the State Department over areas of responsibility that consumed at least 100 emails.

It is true that Mr. Pickering said on “Face the Nation” that both Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the current Joint Chiefs chairman, and Adm. Mullen, a former Join Chiefs chairman, had “testified that there was no military capacity to get” to Benghazi. And former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on the same program that “we don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East.” Maybe there is a good reason for that, despite the turmoil in the Middle East — but what about the North African war zone where we started hostilities? (The Defense Department considers Libya to be in North Africa, whereas the State Department classifies Libya as Middle East.)

There was some irony in Mr. Gates’ appearance. He also said that “given the number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from [Moammar] Gadhafi’s arsenals” — as a result of our military intervention — “I would not have approved sending a single aircraft over Benghazi in those circumstances.” He added finally that “without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground,” sending some small number of special operations forces “would have been very dangerous.”

The resulting picture is — perhaps a bit oversimplified — that of a U.S. military basically chased out of a war by weapons unleashed by hostilities it started, and thus deprived of any useful intelligence capacity in a war zone of its own making. Both the State Department and the CIA, by contrast, had plenty of real-time intelligence about what was going on, but the military appears to have not been “in the loop,” as Vice President George H.W. Bush once said about his own role in Iran-Contra. The question is why.

In many ways, the failure of the policy in Libya goes back to the decision to “lead from behind” the British and French NATO units, and not seek authorization to use force from the Congress. If Congress had been brought in, as it should have been, it either would have said “no” or, more likely, it would have become engaged as the Constitution requires — in which case it is impossible to imagine the ultimate outcome free of any trace of ongoing coordination with the House and Senate Armed Services committees or the Defense Department itself.

C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. “Arbitrary and Capricious” runs monthly.