Monday, November 26, 2012

Benghazi and Rice: Taste of Washington

The most recent politicizing of tragedy, Sandy not-withstanding, has been the scapegoating of UN Ambassador Susan Rice on her Sept 16th appearances on multiple political news shows, answering questions about whether the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and several other U.S. citizens, was a pre-planned terrorist attack, or a spontaneous demonstration in response to an offensive youtube video, The Innocence of Muslims.

The early responose to Rice's claims, first political, then public, had twitter and facebook feeds chattering about an Obama conspiracy, and if nothing else, Rice's incompetence and complicity with some kind of conspiracy. The motivation? Who knows, but a certainly a conspiracy none-the-less. Senators McCain and Graham spearheaded the rhetorical campaigns, first accusing Rice of a lead role in the cover-up, and then agreeing that they would not support her nomination to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. The fervor whipped up by the anti-Rice/pro-conspiracy theorist dogmatists, created both a media and political glut that continues only slighty abated today. McCain has finally relented and says he would consider Rice, arguably, once he realized that his position was losing factual credibility.

Indeed, the issues involved are of fact, and not opinion, presumably facts that can be determined, despite being complex. Part of the complexity is the failure of many in the U.S. to recognize that "Muslim" is not a single group of clone-minded people, that "al Qaeda" is not a single group of clone-minded people, and that "terrorists" are not a single group of clone-minded people. While most reasonable people recognize that neither all Muslims are terrorists, nor all terrorists are Muslim, there seems to be some confusion that, similarly, not all terrorists are al Qaeda. In this case, the propensity to hear "Muslim terrorist" automatically as "al Qaeda" creates a cognitive stumbling block that has made the Benghazi attack more difficult to frame than is necessary. In this case, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attack is not al Qaeda "proper", but Ansar al Sharia.

While the differences may seem trivial, it becomes fundamentally important to understand the them. Take the distinction bewteen Sunni and Shia--while both groups are Muslim, one cannot understand the Arab-Persian conflicts without grasping this fundamental distinction. Take a U.S. example. Let's say that the primary religious affiliation of individuals who attempt to murder abortion providers is Southern Baptist. First, the investigator must be able to grasp that there are many "kinds" of Southern Baptists--those that self-label as such, but only consider a handful of congregations as God's chosen people, on the most extreme side, and on the other, the denomination that comprises all congregations who are members in good standing of the nationwide organization. There are profound differences between the former and the latter. So to claim that any Southern Baptist should be profiled as a potential abortion provider murderer would be an inefficient profile, because of the differences between sub-identity and larger group. Second, the investigator must also recognize the distinction between various types of Baptists. For example, American Baptists are far more likely to affirm same-sex relationships, while Southern Baptists are not. Third the investigator would need to recognize the distinction between various Protestant groups--Baptists tend to be far different from Lutherans, although both are within the larger group of Protestants. Fourth, the investigator would need to distinguish the sub-types of Christian--for example, Protestant vs. Catholic--very different types of Christian and important belief/behavior differences can be expected. To put the shoe on the other foot, if an African journalist or politician were to claim that "Christians have a propensity to muder abortion providers" or "Protestants have a propensity to murder abortion providers" or, etc, none of those statements would be entirely accurate, since they gloss over a fundamental definitional problem--the minority of "crazies" that one may find in certain sectarian Southern Baptist congregations are not by any means representative of Southern Baptists as a whole, of Protestants, or of Christians, but represent a very specific and unique sub-type of religous adherent.

Back to Benghazi--the question asked of Rice, is whether al Qaeda attacked Benghazi. The answer is likely no. We don't have the full transcript from Petraeus' Friday testimony to Congress. But we know that he gave an answer that contained complexity--the intitial reports indicated anger about the video, and spontaneous demonstrations, but that other early reports indicated planned terrorist activity. We know from other sources that the al Quada-"ish" group, Ansar al Sharia, claimed responsibility for the attack--within hours e-mails surfaced identifying this group. Was this al Qaeda, and was it a planned attack? Maybe, sort-of, kinda.

Scenario one. If the Westboro Baptist Church pickets the funeral of a miltary service person, is it accurate to say that "Baptists picket military funerals?" Only if you really dislike all Baptists and don't mind bearing false witness about them.

Scenario two. If you have weapons in your house, somebody breaks into your house, and you shoot him dead, is it accurate to say that you planned to kill the intruder? Well, you had weapons, and you presumably planned to use them, and you presumably didn't morally object to the use of lethal force--but it would likely be a stretch to say that you actually "planned" to kill the individual.

Scenario three. If the Westboro Baptist Church protests the clinic of an abortion provider, you, a non-Westboro affiliated Baptist, see that there is no police protection at the clinic, and that the scene is in complete disarray, so you go home to get your weapons, return and kill the abortion provider, would it be accurate to say that 1) the Westboro Baptist Church killed the abortion provider, or that 2) the Southern Baptist Church killed the abortion provider, or that 3) the murder represented a pre-planned attack? In the first two cases, likely not, despite there being some loose religious and political affiliation. In the third case, also probably not--the individual likely had wanted to commit the murder, and already had weapons available, and simply opportunistically took advantage of the situation for his own benefit of something he had, in the abstract, wanted to do at some point in the future. That represents a different frame than if the individual had made a specific, coordinated plan to kill the abortion provider on this given date, using this specific procedure.

In the case of Benghazi, the unfolding narrative, seems to be that there were both anti-video demonstrations, *and* the availability of opportunity for an al Qaeda-"ish" group, Ansar al Sharia, to wreak some havoc. Joe Klein reports this narrative based on his interviews, defended it this morning on Morning Joe, and while ridiculed by Scarborough, seems to be the narrative of the administration. The Navy Times reports extensively on Petraeus' testimony to congress, as well as the evidence to date, which seems to support Klein's narrative. Similarly, regarding the charges of "conspiracy," the New York Magazine says that, yes, a conspiracy existed, but a conspiracy to catch terrorists, which is what the Petraeus testimony supports. From the beginning of the evolving situation, even Fox News reported that Ansar al Sharia was behind the attack, affirming some of the early intelligence, as well as its status as a local, isolated "militia," not al Qaeda proper, and not part of a "pre-planned" orchestrated action. The chronology seems to have been, that the anti-video demonstrations created a situation that was rife with possibility for Ansar al Sharia, and the multiple-waves of activity reports support the narrative that Ansar al Sharia returned in the subsequent waves to perpetrate the attack, once they realized that security was lax.

So the larger question, as Klein emphasizes, is not whether there was an Obama-led conspiracy, but why was there lax security for the diplomat. On the one hand, he argues that Stevens wanted it that way, because of his opinion that the effective diplomat had to be out and among the people. On the other hand, is that a reasonable strategy in a country like Libya. In the end, Klein's question is about the kinds of conversations we need to be having in Congress and the State Department about diplomat security. On the one hand, our military budget is 20% of the federal budget, while the State Department budget is 1%. In addition to paying the diplomats themselves, security for diplomats also comes out of the State Department budget. Even the conservative Christian Science Monitor reports that the same Republicans who were attempting to blame the Obama administration for failed security at Benghazi, are the ones who have been lobbying to "aggressively cut spending ... for embassy security in particular." Not to be partisan (I didn't vote for Obama), but it seems that there may be a conspiracy after all, but on the part of Republicans attempting to wield rhetorical swords to incite public wrath against an opponent, not on the part of the Obama administration. But, that's just the taste of Washington. Nov 29 Update: In a meeting with McCain, Graham and Ayotte, Amb. Rice stated that the early intelligence was incorrect, that there was no protest in Benghazi the day of the attack. Acting CIA director Morell confirmed the incorrect early intelligence, and is similar to Petraeus' testimony (linked above, and again here) stating that "initially was unclear whether militants infiltrated a demonstration to cover their attack." After the hearing, McCain and Graham renewed their early opposition to Rice's unsubmitted nomination for Secretary of State. On the contrary, Sen Inhofe, GOP reprentative of the Foreign Relations Committee, an early critic of Rice, has shifted his views in the opposite direct after Rice's testimony, who now believes she was told an incomplete version of events, and bears no responsibility for the mistaken early comments. Sen Collins, soon to be GOP head of the Foreign Relations Committee, currently on the Homeland Security Committee will have a meeting later this week with Rice. Unlike Graham and McCain, she and Lieberman have not been willing to make public statements against Rice.

No comments:

Post a Comment