Paul Pillar

Second-Guessing About Benghazi

Barack Obama signs a condolence book in memory of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.The seemingly endless public rehashing of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is not taking a form that serves any useful purpose. That would be true even without the political slant that was stemmed from efforts to turn some of the recriminations into a campaign issue. The loss of the four public servants was a tragedy. The rehashing does not alleviate that tragedy. Some relevant truths should be recalled:

Diplomacy is a dangerous line of work. The memorial wall at the State Department listing the many U.S. diplomats—going back more than two centuries—who have been killed in the line of duty is a reminder of that. There is an inherent tension for diplomats between doing their duties well, with everything that entails regarding contact and exposure in faraway places, and living securely.

Hindsight is cheap. After any incident such as this, one can uncover warnings that might have been applicable to the incident that occurred, measures that could have been taken that conceivably could have prevented the occurrence and various other "what ifs." What does not routinely get noted is that the same sorts of things could be unearthed about countless other facilities that do not get attacked and countless other lethal incidents that do not occur. What is unearthed is a product of the second-guesser's luxury of hindsight. One always can construct an after-the-fact case that any one such incident was preventable; this is not the same as saying that such incidents in the aggregate are preventable.

Resources are limited; threats are not. Even if U.S. diplomats consistently opted for living securely over doing their jobs well, total security cannot be bought. Second-guessing about how more security should have been provided at any one facility rather than any of dozens of others elsewhere (that did not happen to get attacked this time) is just another example of hindsight.

Information about lethal incidents is not total and immediate. The normal pattern after such events is for explanations to evolve as more and better information becomes available. We would and should criticize any investigators who settled on a particular explanation early amidst sketchy information and refused to amend that explanation even when more and better information came in. A demand for an explanation that is quick, definite and unchanging reflects a naive expectation—or in the present case, irresponsible politicking.

The public second-guessing does nothing to honor the service of those Americans who died. And it does nothing to prevent similar incidents. The secretary of state has, per standard procedures, appointed an accountability review board (led by a highly respected and experienced retired diplomat, Thomas Pickering) to assess what happened in Benghazi. Let the board do its job.