The Selective-Outrage Committee on Benghazi

Republicans are unlikely to learn anything useful from their investigation, since they're more interested in discrediting Obama.
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President Obama ordered the assassination of an American citizen without due process. He presided over mass surveillance on millions of Americans. And he illegally ordered U.S. troops to war in Libya without obtaining congressional authorization. An investigation into any of those acts could document serious lawbreaking.

But lawbreaking in service of hawkish national-security policy doesn't interest Republicans. They demand sunlight only when they imagine it will prove Obama is a foreign-policy incompetent whose weakness costs American lives—hence the new House select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack. Normally the GOP acts as though the White House is justified in covering up anything that involves CIA presence in a foreign country. This is the exception. "There is much to be learned still about what happened at Benghazi," says National Review, "and how to be better on guard against such events in the future."

Are there any useful lessons to be learned that weren't covered in the independent accountability report on the attacks? If so, I doubt movement conservatives will learn them. Perhaps you've wondered why there were so many violent militia members in Benghazi just prior to the attack on the American consulate and CIA annex. The answer begins with the civil war in which the United States participated. Zack Beauchamp explains what happened next:

After the war ended in August 2011, Benghazi became an epicenter of militia activity. Because it was the most important base of rebel strength, a lot of rebels who later joined militias hailed from Benghazi and the surrounding environs in the region of Cyrenaica. Some of those groups even attempted to turn Cyrenaica into a functionally independent state, with Benghazi as its capital. In March 2014, that seccesionist impulse almost sparked a second civil war. With all of these Libyan factions busy fighting each other after Qaddafi's fall, no one was really interested or able to root out the jihadi groups that moved in after Qaddafi—some of which had participated in the rebellion, some of which had only shown up after. These violent, anti-American groups thrive in chaos, and swiftly grew in strength in Libya after Qaddafi's demise.

There's definitely a lesson here. If America helps to overthrow a dictator, establishes a consulate at an epicenter of the violent chaos that follows, sends diplomats to staff that outpost, and houses them next to CIA agents using diplomatic cover for good measure, their safety is likely to be threatened. If they're killed, it may be possible to look back at mistakes in getting them a security detail, or warning signs that were ignored, but the main lesson is to stop putting Americans at risk in the aftermath of wars of choice. 

Here's more context:

The mission's confusing legal status made meeting its security needs particularly hard. The Benghazi mission wasn't an embassy or even an official consulate; it was so off-book that the Libyan government was never officially notified of its existence. This strange legal status put the mission outside the normal State Department procedures used to allocate security funding and personnel.

What was the CIA doing there anyway? That crucial question isn't one the GOP is interested in answering. 

Perhaps the Obama Administration should have known to better protect these Americans, just as the Bush Administration should've known better than to administer their war of choice so incompetently that 5,000 Americans died fighting it. But in that case too, the useful lesson is to avoid creating power vacuums that jihadis fill, and to avoid sticking around to be killed in them. Protecting Americans perfectly in such situations is impossible, because our government is not capable of perfection. Every Republican who urged U.S. intervention in Libya shares responsibility for Benghazi, just as pro-war Democrats share responsibility for Iraq. No administration will ever do everything right, because people are fallible and the federal bureaucracy has a degree of dysfunction inherent to it.

But hawks never learn these lessons. If National Review had its way, and the United States played a more interventionist role in the world, U.S. casualties like the ones at Benghazi would increase.

Incredibly, however, the magazine's editors have taken the opposite lesson. "The events of September 11, 2012, are ipso facto evidence of a catastrophic failure to protect American facilities abroad, and that this happened despite the warnings of our intelligence agencies compounds the failure," they begin. Fine. The objectionable passage comes next: "That is one part of the 'broader failure of policy' that the video narrative was intended to obscure. Another part is the administration’s lack of coherent policy in Egypt, Libya, and the greater Middle East, which has left our allies wary and our enemies encouraged."

Recall what actually happened in Libya. The Obama Administration joined the effort to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi. It succeeded. Our enemy lost. His regime fell. He was killed. If hawkish foreign-policy assumptions were correct, this show of strength would've sent a signal to our enemies and Americans would've been safer as a result.

That isn't how it worked out.

Alas, no Republican investigation is likely to reach those conclusions. The GOP is ideologically committed to the notion that Americans died because of a weak, dithering president who emboldened our enemies by failing to be hawkish enough. 

A Benghazi investigation may well unearth unlawful or immoral behavior in the White House. Obama has proved guilty of both before. And it ought to teach Americans a valuable lesson about the dangers of our present approach to foreign policy. But it won't teach those lessons, because it is being run by a GOP that isn't interested in preventing future Benghazis so much as discrediting Obama. Let's hope that they unwittingly reveal some useful information in the effort.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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