Benghazi Oversight and the Death of Expeditionary Diplomacy

The assassination of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya on 9/11/2012 was a stark and sad example of the risks taken by diplomats who push out into the field in unstable security environments. Any such attack on U.S. interests calls for a thorough after-action analysis by components of the Executive Branch. There is also an important role for Congress in its oversight function. Such reviews should address legitimate questions of diplomatic security resourcing and deployment, intelligence threat analysis, and attack response.

From my vantage point, after six years split between White House Counsel’s Office and the staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Benghazi has not been an example of responsible congressional oversight.

U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid efforts have suffered at the hands of post-9/11 security obsession. Legitimate security concerns enhance our tendency to bunker U.S. personnel in a manner that removes them further from the objects of their mission, namely foreign people and institutions. On frequent congressional trips to U.S. embassies in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, I heard complaint after complaint from junior diplomats and development officers. In Afghanistan I met officers in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) charged with advising the new government with rule-of-law initiatives that could not get motor pool authorization to travel from the Embassy to the Ministry of Justice. (I’m sure our congressional delegations did not ease motor pool strain.) I met U.S. diplomats in Pakistan who could barely go outside the security perimeter of the embassy or consulate. I heard similar stories in more stable security environments in Africa and the Middle East.

“Expeditionary diplomacy” is designed to address such concerns. It reinforces our goal to push people out of the embassies and into the population—out of capitals and into the hinterland. Ambassador Stevens was attacked at such a temporary expeditionary facility. The Benghazi attack, stoked by overheated congressional oversight, will likely have a further deleterious effect on our overseas missions by chilling appropriate risk-taking. While the U.S. facility in Benghazi requires scrutiny, congressional hostility could stifle expeditionary diplomacy worldwide.

Long before Benghazi, there was an important bipartisan discussion about the need for expeditionary diplomacy in order to preserve and enhance our diplomatic effectiveness overseas. We have long had legitimate embassy security concerns. In 1979, for example, we endured the Iran Hostage Crisis after students stormed U.S. Embassy Tehran, as well as the burning of U.S. Embassy Islamabad and U.S. Embassy Tripoli.

The 9/11/2001 attack only exacerbated diplomatic security concerns. Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and emulators have rejected prohibitions on non-military targets and flagrantly dishonored the taboo against targeting civilians. Diplomats and development professionals, of course, are important civilian instruments of our national power. Terroristic targeting of non-combatants is antithetical to the jus in bello tenets of Just War theory, international law and norms, and U.S. law and policy. Nevertheless, U.S. civilian personnel are in the crosshairs.

All of our well-intentioned concerns about security have led to tangible impediments to diplomacy and development. In addition to complaints about diplomatic mobility, there are other indications of the security culture. Embassy architecture, critical to the safety of our personnel, ever more resembles the fortress. But it is important to remember that our embassies also serve as enduring symbols of the United States itself.

As then-Chairman John Tierney (D-MA) put it during a 2008 House subcommittee hearing on the subject:

More and more, the American flag flies on the outskirts of foreign capitals, remote from daily life, from inside the fortified perimeter of a massive bunker . . . . My concern is that our diplomats are at risk of alienation, of becoming unable to communicate face-to-face with the very people they must try to understand and to influence. They are at risk of irrelevance.

In order to help mitigate security concerns, officials ranging from Secretary Condoleezza Rice to Secretary Hillary Clinton promoted expeditionary diplomacy. It is about making sure that our diplomats and development professionals are pushed out into the field. They need to be empowered. People-to-people diplomacy requires face-to-face contact.

Of course, enhancing forward deployment of diplomats and development officers presents a very complicated problem. It implicates personnel, resources, architecture, transportation, and security. Perhaps the most important ingredient, however, is courage.

I don’t mean the personal courage of State Department and USAID personnel, although we need (and have) it. I mean bureaucratic courage. It requires significant acknowledgment and assumption of risk to push officials further out into potentially hostile territory.

Enter Congress. Congressional oversight serves an important function in our constitutional system. As far back as Anderson v. Dunn in 1826, the Supreme Court has recognized the constitutional need to inform legislative judgments by means of congressional oversight. Invariably, congressional inquiry will also address legislatively relevant activities of the Executive Branch, including calamities such as the terrorist attack in Benghazi.

On Benghazi, though, congressional oversight has veered away from its informative function and has become thoroughly politicized. For a variety of reasons, including war fatigue and Bin Laden’s elimination, Democrats have largely neutralized Republican political advantages on national security matters. The political environment is a long way from former Governor Zell Miller’s party-crossing speech to the Republican National Convention accusing Democrats of using spitballs to defend U.S. interests.

Then came Benghazi. After initial confusion about the nature of the attack, most notably delivered on talk shows by then-U.S Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, Republicans pounced. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has led a sprawling and unprincipled investigation. With unmistakable 2016 overtones, he focuses on former Secretary Hillary Clinton. Rep. Issa just returned from a trip to Libya in which he failed to bring any Democrats, in contravention of committee and House practice. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) and others repeatedly compare Benghazi to Watergate. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) have all invoked the specter of impeachment over Benghazi. One article featured the lamentations of senior House GOP aides that “the partisan overtones are diverting Congress from identifying and addressing the real lessons learned from the attack.”

Putting aside the ick factor of political combat, politicized oversight in the case of Benghazi is compounding the normal risks of unintended consequences following a bad event. Negative outcomes create regulation bias and encourage timidity. Certainly we should always strive to improve our systems, but we also have to make sure that treatment doesn’t harm the patient.

Constructive oversight would focus on adequate funding for diplomatic security. It would encourage State Department and USAID leadership to optimize security for forward deployments. For his part, Rep. Issa’s committee has interagency jurisdiction and is uniquely situated to focus on whole-of-government issues related to security coordination and response. Finally, meaningful oversight would reassure our career security officials that Congress will countenance acceptable risks in support of expeditionary diplomacy.

Unfortunately, use of Benghazi as a political rallying cry further threatens the stalled momentum of expeditionary diplomacy. Indeed, Rep. Issa’s staffer, Kurt Bardella, wrote a piece blaming expeditionary diplomacy theory itself for Benghazi. After colleagues get hauled in to Congress for abusive transcribed interviews and hearings, what diplomatic security officer in their right mind is going to tip the scales toward a risk-laden choice that might serve highly important, but low profile, diplomatic goals?

We want U.S. embassies to be open for business. We want our diplomats out forging relationships with elected officials, political parties, ministries, academics, other civil society groups, and a broad swath of people in host countries. We want development officials out at infrastructure projects, working with public health officials, and doing all those things about development that are antithetical to sitting inside a fortress-like structure on the outskirts of town.

Unfortunately, breathlessly politicized congressional oversight only expands bureaucratic timidity. I hope Secretary Kerry can resist. We want our people out of the fortress and into the field. Otherwise, undue caution will frustrate diplomats and development officers from promoting our country, culture, and values abroad. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter (@AndyMcCanse).