Paul Pillar

Costs of a Fixation

There appears to be no end in sight to the fixation on the lethal incident last year in Benghazi, Libya and to the determination to wring as much recrimination from it as possible. The topic demonstrates how much an issue launched and exploited during the heat of an election campaign can continue as a national distraction well after the election has come and gone. One might have thought that Secretary of State Clinton's swan-song Congressional testimony this week would mark the end of this preoccupation, but that now seems unlikely. Anyone with an interest in undermining the political prospects of this once-and-possible-future presidential candidate, or of the administration she has been serving the past four years, has an interest in keeping the issue going.

I addressed last fall the principles that need to be borne in mind when thinking about an incident such as the one in Benghazi. I am pleased to note that the director of national intelligence—who does not have a dog in the partisan political fight that has become a subtext of this issue—agrees with my observations enough to have incorporated them explicitly into a speech. The principles remain valid.

The State Department's accountability review board has completed its study of the incident, has issued its report, and has had all of its recommendations accepted by the secretary of state. If this does not bring closure to the matter for anyone who has a straightforward, non-political, non-recrimination-driven concern about the incident, it is hard to imagine what would or should bring such closure.

Given the shape that the preoccupation and associated rhetoric about this incident has taken, we also should note that the fixation on it has a couple of longer term costs.

One of them comes under the heading of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The zero-incident standard that is implied by much of the rhetoric—and that is implied by the discourse that habitually follows many terrorist incidents—risks impeding government operations in ways that outweigh whatever good can be done by pursuing the unattainable goal of zero incidents. In the case of the events in Libya, the impeding has to do with the unavoidable trade-off between diplomats and other foreign-based U.S. officials doing their jobs energetically and effectively, and keeping those same officials secure from those who might do them harm. The longer and louder are the recriminations about Benghazi, the more that future secretaries of state and those who work for them will respond by low-risk approaches that keep their people relatively safe behind the high walls of fortress-like embassies, at the expense of doing their jobs effectively. The resulting damage to U.S. foreign policy can take many forms, including damage to counterterrorism.

Another cost concerns the common-knowledge narrative that seems to be emerging about what led to the attack in Benghazi. The narrative is simply that a terrorist group plotted the attack and that other circumstances, including an inflammatory anti-Islam video that was receiving much attention at the time, had nothing to do with it. That narrative is incorrect as well as damaging, notwithstanding all the laborious reconstructions about this particular attack not growing out of a popular demonstration. Terrorist attacks rarely grow out of popular demonstrations, but popular anger has a great deal to do with stimulating terrorism, providing a permissive environment for it, and increasing the pool of angry people who may resort to or be recruited into terrorism. Anti-U.S. terrorism correlates with people being angry about things associated with America, including unofficial things such as the offensive video and official policies and actions. Failure to understand that connection encourages the unproductive view that countering terrorism is just a matter of eradicating a fixed roster of terrorist groups; making that view the basis for policy increases the chance of more Americans becoming victims of terrorism.

Image: Flickr/Mr. Theklan. CC BY-SA 2.0.