(Note: Hat-tip to NYT’s Maureen Dowd for coining the term ‘teanderthals’. Such precision. – Ed)
Indulge this writer a bit of nostalgia from one of the stranger corners of American diplomacy. In fact, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent eleven-hour interrogation at the hands of Republican congressmen and women in their eternal search for some political truth about the events in Benghazi two years ago triggers this particular reminiscence.
Back in 1979, a few months after militant students had seized the US Embassy in Tehran and American diplomats were taken as hostages, deep in the depths of the State Department’s diplomatic security office, some lunatic decided that all diplomats assigned to presumably vulnerable posts – such as smaller consulates in predominantly Muslim nations where there were no Marine guards stationed there and only a modest group of locally hired guards – would be required to learn how to use – and I swear I am not making this up – shotguns, rifles, (tear gas) grenade launchers, and side arms to defend American consular turf.
And this would become the order of the day just after all classified reports, cables and any cryptographic equipment had been hauled up to the roof of the consulate and then be burned in specially prepared 44-gallon oil drums. This plan obviously had not be scrutinised with regard to its visible effect on everyone for miles around by virtue of the thick, oily smoke that would rise up, giving a sign the consulate staff really believed things had become extremely dangerous for their safety.
Then, when the consulate was about to be overrun (or perhaps when we had run out of ammunition), we were supposed to sneak out of the possibly charred remains of the building, through a trap door that opened into a cholera/dengue fever/malaria-infested canal and wade our way to safety through the muck. Really.
Right then and there, the bunch of us assigned there decided that if that proverbial balloon ever went up, we would lock the building and just walk away – just as soon as any classified stuff was shredded into dust.
And so, in the fullness of time, after an entire day at an Indonesian police firing range, trying out all those weapons and then doing a practice run on the building’s roof with one of those flaming oil barrels, it became totally clear to everyone that this plan had been the bizarre pipe dream of a madman who had never actually worked abroad. Or, perhaps, he had seen far too many of those action films and he had begun to think the job of a diplomat was to hold out in some kind of Southeast Asian equivalent of the Alamo – until help didn’t arrive. Or something. Who knows, really.
And this, of course, is a crux of the problem with the Republicans’ approach to the former secretary of state and would-be Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, in her eleven-hour marathon at the mercy of the Republican-led House of Representatives’ Special Select Committee on Benghazi. If Republicans actually had had any kind of theory of the weird case they were trying to weave together, their meanderings into factoids kept pointing to some kind of insinuation Hillary Clinton had somehow allowed the four US government employees to get killed in order to make a perverse political point.
But even that eventually became hopelessly entombed amidst hours of GOP posturing over Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal’s supposed Svengali-esque hold over the secretary of state’s thoughts. As a result, GOP representatives were reduced to using props to show that the relative volume of printed out emails on Libya between 2011 and 2012 had become a precise indicator of national policy and Clinton’s Libya-fatigue (That the secretary also used memos, the telephone, State Department cables and other reading matter seemed to elude the GOP). Moreover, it was horrific to the GOP that Hillary Clinton as secretary of state did not personally insist every request for additional security support for a temporary consular post in Benghazi be met fully and completely. Perhaps most pointlessly of all, there was their persistent questioning of why slain ambassador Chris Stevens didn’t have Clinton’s personal, private email address and – presumably – her home telephone number, the code to the Clinton home security system, or access to the family’s silver storage cupboard.
In the end, the picture that most even reasonably objective viewers would have come away after watching that long congressional snooze was of a Republican-led special investigating committee increasingly desperate to find a purpose for its expenditure of millions of dollars. The committee had largely ploughed old ground already looked at by an in-house State Department-convened review board led by a universally respected senior diplomat and an equally senior military figure, as well as several other congressional investigations over several years. Totally lost in all the huffing, puffing, posturing and table pounding was the simple, albeit unpleasant fact that sometimes diplomats get killed doing their jobs, because the world can be a dangerous place. Ambassador Stevens knew that, just like everyone else who has ever held a diplomat’s job.
A diplomat, even if he or she knows a place really well, can make what becomes a deadly miscalculation about where to visit in carrying out his or her work. Then there is the awkward fact that virtually no amount of additional security funding spent on the US diplomatic mission in Libya’s temporary facility in Benghazi would have been able to stop the shoulder-launched, ground-to-ground missiles that were used on that fateful day.
Moreover, sadly, sometimes virtually nothing can prevent the locally hired guard forces or local military and police actually assigned to protect a facility from melting away when things go sour, if they choose to desert their posts. In that regard, Republicans on the committee seemed rather unfamiliar with the basic precept that it is the local government’s responsibility to provide security for foreign embassies in their country – not the US Marines, the Seventh Fleet or Superman. If local government can’t do the job – or won’t – things will inevitably be problematic.
Oh, and by the way, returning back to 1979, together with another diplomat, this writer had undergone a very low-maintenance, week-long, overland journey that visited a whole list of religious schools scattered all over East Java. The task was deceptively simple. It was to gauge what teachers and students in those schools felt about America, especially in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and how those feelings could be manifested in unpleasant actions.
This task was precisely what Clinton had labelled “old-style expeditionary diplomacy” in one of her extended answers to yet another of those embarrassing, whinging questions about why the US Embassy in Tripoli’s security recommendations had not been fulfilled in full at Benghazi. And as a corollary, how could she live with her conscience, given the fact Libyan insurgents had attacked that temporary office space with missiles.
Of course, in our own case nearly forty years ago, we were never attacked and we found that undoubted Islamic religious fervour on Java was not being translated into any overt political action vis-à-vis the US. But, crucially, we would not have known that, had we not made that kind of trip – carried out with no special security upgrades, it should be added. Okay, times are different now, and for some, there is a target on the backs of American diplomats, but that is the tough challenge at present. And it has now made much more complex by the fortress-like embassies that are the order of the day, now, at the direction of security dictates.
Ultimately, what did come clear from the miasma of this most recent congressional hearing was that in the early days following the deadly attack in Benghazi, there clearly was confusion about how to define the attack and its origins, how to explain it publicly, and how to respond to a public (and congressional) outcry over the deaths. And, if one looked really carefully and closely, there was even a hint of the Obama administration’s confusion over what America’s goals actually were (or should have been) in Libya, and how those would or could be reconciled with maintaining an active presence there in the post-Gaddafi disorder and chaos. But those rather more difficult issues were virtually ignored in place of that unseemly chest beating over Sidney Blumenthal and the other faux-weighty issues that were explored instead.
Watch: Hillary Clinton’s 11 hour testimony in full – FNN
And so where did that demonstration of some especially serious, policy-wonkish yet surprisingly engaging sitzfleisch (“the ability to endure or persist in an endeavour through sedentary determination” – often used as a compliment to a particularly dogged chess master) leave Hillary Clinton by week’s end? For starters, it had become increasingly clear she has had one heckuva run in her campaigning, ever since her commanding presence in that first Democratic Party candidates’ debate, 13 October in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In that five-person debate, Clinton demonstrated a convincing presence as a candidate unafraid to deal with the gritty details, to call out all that Republican bloody shirt waving and dog whistling for what it was – and, perhaps, crucially, to keep her cool throughout, and avoid any sense of defensiveness in her posture and responses. And then, as a real bonus, she received an unexpected shout-out from her nomination rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in that debate. Sanders told their audience of more than 13 million American television viewers, beyond those in the hall, those who would read about it later, or those who would see that moment repeated endlessly on social media, that the country was totally tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s “damn emails.”
Instead, the country is crying out for some real discussion and debate about rather more serious issues such as the state of the economy and Republican efforts to forestall any presidential initiatives over the past six and a half years. Sanders’ comment became the most memorable comment to emerge from that debate, possibly already helping give Democratic Party supporters not yet in Clinton’s corner a way to make the shift to her eventually, especially as she edges ever closer to fully embracing the theme of economic inequality as a key element of the campaign on, going forward.
Shortly after that debate, two “no-hoper” challengers, former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee and former senator James Webb, both registering below sea level in terms of would-be voter support, announced their respective withdrawals from the race. These decisions have now left only Senator Sanders, and one last “no-chancer”, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (who admittedly didn’t hurt himself as a possible vice presidential candidate with his appealing appearance in that recent debate), as Hillary Clinton’s intra-party rivals, fully a year before the actual election itself – and months before the first vote is cast in a caucus or primary election.
But, even after the debate, just about every political figure had still been waiting anxiously to see if incumbent Vice President Joe Biden would yet make a decision to run for the presidential nomination after all, just one last time. Just such an eventuality had, in fact, been the focus of the chattering class in print, on all those television political talk shows in the US, throughout the blogosphere and on social media platforms. If Clinton faltered somehow during the hearing, or was wounded in her responses to the questions, what would “good ole Joe” do, that was the question.
But Biden had obviously been watching the televised hearings very closely. And so, Clinton’s solid, impressive performance over that eleven-hour stretch (in tandem with Biden’s obvious traumatic, deep grief about the recent death of his son) seems to have blunted his hell-for-leather political instincts to go for it. Together, these two things put a final “no” after any ideas of his riding to the rescue of his beloved Democratic Party.
And so, now, the ball is now back in the Republican Party’s court with their next debate, scheduled this week, 28 October, this time in Boulder, Colorado. The Democratic Party’s direction now seems increasingly coming into final focus, what with Clinton as the candidate and Sanders as resident class scold and scourge of the undeserving rich (but not their presidential candidate). But, in the GOP race, a trio of non-political politicians who have been blasting away at the fecklessness, the stupidity, the cupidity, and the veniality of Washington – Donald Trump, Dr Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina – continue with a kind of lock on the love of Republican primary voters (albeit not the nation as a whole). Meanwhile, the various political veterans like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and the rest of that unruly pack struggle to break out of the supporter doldrums so that they can finally vanquish that trio of interlopers for their party’s ultimate affection.
As for Hillary Clinton, it now seems only one real issue may yet harm her quest for the nomination (and possibly the White House). It will become very hard going for her if the FBI (now carrying out an investigation into this) ultimately finds that she actually committed any criminal behaviour or significant security breach because of her use of a private email server arrangement for her more quotidian emails. Classified information was not, apparently, passed along via that channel.
In the meantime, perhaps like what Roman emperors were said to have done (or at least the smart ones) when they had servants employed specifically to whisper into imperial rulers’ ears after a successful military triumph, “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal.” Clinton might just want to think about having someone on the campaign trail specifically designated to remind her of her vulnerabilities. Like so many other things in life, hubris can kill. DM
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, on Capitol Hill in Washington October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope