Some Post Benghazi Fact Checking, Compliments of the AP

Except for the people at Fox and the far right fans of the likes of Rush, Breitbart and Drudge, most commentators, including Republicans, see the Benghazi hearing as a win for Hillary Clinton and a loss for the Republican head hunters on the committee.

The Republicans looking so bad made Hillary, who fended off their attacks for over eight hours, possibly look too good by comparison.  She did make some questionable, even untrue statements as judged by an Associated Press fact checking crew.  But so did her antagonists, as do all politicians.

One dubious comment she made was:  “There was a good back and forth about security….” between personnel in Libya and the State Department in Washington.   In contrast an independent review that she convened cited a “lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at senior bureau levels” and “shortfalls in Washington coordination” contributing to a “woefully insufficient” security force at the compound.

Here is where our dual political reality comes into play.  If you are antagonistic toward Clinton you see that as proof of her lying and blame her for the woefully insufficient insecurity.  If you are empathetic towards her, as I am, you note SHE WAS THE ONE THAT CONVENED THAT ACCOUNTABILITY REVIEW BOARD, belying the accusation she was trying to cover up.

And, after all, she did head up a large department.  As such, she certainly wasn’t personally monitoring the security of each diplomatic post, even the most dangerous ones, of which there are many.  And she did make the system improvements suggested by the Review Board.  And decisions about security were made harder by Republican cuts in their budget for 2012 as described in this 2011 article.

The crux of this is while Hillary Clinton can be fairly criticized, she is hardly the callous, incompetent portrayed in the Republican narrative of the Benghazi attack.

As to who looks better after the fact checking, you can take a look and judge for yourself.  It can be found here.

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P. S. –  It did not occur to me until after the hearing that there was barely a mention of who attacked the compound and what has become of them.  One of the several curiosities about this Republican obsession with Benghazi is that it extends only about two weeks beyond the attack.  There is much to question about our policy there ever since then.  I surmise the Republicans don’t dwell on that because they might be implicated in the failure as well.

For those interested in learning more about the attackers, check out this article on Ahmed Salim Faraj Abu Khatallah, the suspected leader of the attack now in federal custody in Washington awaiting trial.

The Latest Benghazi Committee and the Trial of Hillary Clinton

By all accounts I’ve seen or read, except for Fox News who continued to beat on her Friday morning, Hillary Clinton did more than hold her own under about eight hours of pommelling by congressional Republicans at their committee hearing on Benghazi yesterday.  The news reports say 11 hours, but that includes a number of breaks.   I know because I watched most of it, for which I deserve a medal or should seek professional help.  Perhaps both.

Hillary did get bouts of breathing room when Democrats on the committee took turns praising the former Secretary of State, adding information supportive of her or slamming the partisan nature of the committee.   Except to those intent on defaming her, she appeared more impressive in handling the often disrespectful questions than those who asked them.  She appeared, dare I say, presidential. I was reminded why I liked her prior to her personal server fiasco:  her brains, her knowledge of foreign policy and her toughness.  Reuters proclaimed the hearings made her “a new reality star.”  Move over Donald.

Republican Chair Trey Gowdy began the session by saying the purpose of the committee was to seek the truth about what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attack.  From what I saw the hearing was actually a trial of  Hillary on the unstated charges of bad judgement, insufficient caring and dishonesty.  There was certainly much more of that than the discovery of new truths.

The attack began with a line of questioning I found curious.   The Republican questioner basically made the case that it was Hillary who largely led us into Syria by developing an international coalition and convincing President Obama to act, a complex endeavor when you think about it.  I give her achievement points for that even though the enterprise went sour over time, a subject that actually deserves examination and has never received it because it wouldn’t  make either party look good.

That Clinton actually achieved something here helps refute Carlie Fiorina’s criticism that Mrs. Clinton’s many travel miles does not equate with achievement.  Though an odd tact, the questioning does fit the theme of blaming Hillary for as much as possible.  We got involved in this Libyan mess because of her and later she did some more bad things.

The second point of attack was Clinton’s role in the absence of sufficient security at the Benghazi compound.    Given the general chaos of Benghazi at the time and the lack of reliable support, if any, by Libyan police, it seems obvious now that more security was needed.   But how much to blame Mrs. Clinton remains an open question for those with open minds.   Yes there were requests for more security by Ambassador Stevens and it seems many were turned down, but as one knowledgeable commentator has suggested  they weren’t of the “hair raising kind.”   In other words, Ambassador Stevens was willing to abide by standard request procedures.

Clinton argued that she had security experts handle those requests and did not see them.   As a result of the attack, a review of procedures suggested two high level staffer failed to do their jobs, while procedural changes were made, such as a new staff position that focuses on posts with the highest risk situations.  You want to blame Clinton for not having a more responsive system already in place, go ahead but she did head up a department serving over 200 posts world wide including many other high risk situations as well,   Those who judge her harshly on what happened in Benghazi act as if that was the sole focus of her job, probably because it has become their sole focus.

In any event, the Republican questioning took an odd tact.  They spent well over an hour dwelling on the emails of Sydney Blumenthal, who had little to do with the situation.   Though not an expert on Libya, he is an old friend of Hillary’s who gave her some information culled form a former CIA agent it seems.   She passed on some of it to other officials who might be interested.   The Republican point seemed to be that she was much more available to talk about Benghazi with this friend than with Ambassador Stevens, as if email exchanges about policy are common in the State Department which actually uses cables and secured phones for the most part, at least that is my sense from the hearing.

No case was made that other ambassadors communicated with Clinton through email and had her personal phone number, either.  There was just the innuendo that Clinton was not really available to Ambassador Stevens while she was to Blumenthal, ignoring the way the State Department normally does business.

The third charge was aimed at Mrs. Clinton’s honesty in the days that followed as to who made the attack.   Finally some new information in the form of three emails, two to foreign leaders and one to a relative.  All went out the day after the attack and all indicated it was an act of terrorists.  In one she even dismissed the notion that the video and a demonstration in Egypt played any role.  In response, Clinton said that counter information came in later that blurred events which made her question her original opinion.

The Republicans have ginned this up as if it were another Watergate.  At worst it was a short term attempt to get a grip on the situation while putting the best political spin on it as possible.  The fair minded conservative columnist Kathleen Parker summed it up this way yesterday:

“Republicans have focused on a narrative that is too ghastly to imagine. One theory is that Clinton and the Obama administration didn’t want the world to know that their Libya mission had failed, so they blamed it on the anti-Islam video then in circulation.  More horrid is the suggestion that Clinton purposely denied extra security to Stevens lest her role in directing our Libya policy be tarnished.  People will believe what suits them. But the more probable truth concerning Benghazi is that the early story was a deception with a purpose, which was to buy time until the administration and the CIA could figure out how to manage the crisis without exposing the intelligence agency’s operation in the area.” 

So, after three years and eight congressional committees (with this one ongoing) we are left with the debatable contention that Hillary Clinton was somehow derelict in her duties by not being in more direct contact with Ambassador Stevens (who certainly could have contacted her directly if he chose), hence not responsive enough prior to the assault.  Also, the charge that she helped the Obama administration spin a murky truth situation in their favor for a week or so (as if immediately coming down firmly on the terrorist attack explanation would have changed anything.)

That is all that the Republican inquisition has been able to come up with to this point regarding Benghazi.   I can’t imagine how they will come up with anything more definitive, but that does not mean they won’t keep trying.

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P. S. – If you want to get more background details on the hearing check out this article in the Los Angeles Times.

Obama’s Syria Strategy: Is a Wait and See Approach Enough?

Barring the unforeseen, I think Barack Obama’s Syrian foreign policy will go down as the worst part of his presidency.   His chief mistake was to talk big while producing small actions during that nation’s decent into hell over the past four years.  The biggest mistake of all was to insist that Assad must go without accurately assessing his staying power with the aid of Russia and Iran.

Perhaps heady from deposing Kaddafi in Libya, Obama miscalculated the will of the international community to force Assad’s leaving and was too ambivalent about our own role to provide much leadership.  At the time Putin and the leaders of China seemed to feel they were being played in Libya, that they never endorsed a regime change, but only a protective no fly zone.    They did not want a repeat of that and vetoed UN efforts to put some sanctions on the Assad regime.

Assad has gone nowhere and now with Russia’s increased backing (along with Iran’s), he seems even more likely to stick around, at least as long as Vladimir Putin finds him useful.   Putin’s incursion into Syria has put Obama in an awkward situation, fertile ground for more ambivalence to blossom.   We have conveniently ignored international law in our supportive efforts to rebels we more or less like in Syria in that our aid has usually been given covertly via our CIA.

Not that it is a big secret, but when you support some group with the CIA it is not something you want to hold up for attention  as they don’t adhere closely to international norms.   Meanwhile, Putin can make himself look like the protector of these norms by backing the established government in Syria.   Whatever we might think of Assad, his is the established government.

So, we have Putin’s planes and missiles bombing the “terrorists” in Syria but he makes no distinction between the rebels we like and ISIS whom we despise.    Actually, one can infer a distinction.  That the terrorists he is concentrating on are not ISIS, but our preferred rebels who have been making strides in weakening the Assad regime

Here is our dilemma.   Putin is clearly bombing rebels whom we have supported and all the Obama administration has been able to come up with publicly is a verbal condemnation of Putin’s actions and some kind of air war agreement with Russia to make accidental clashes in Syria’s skies between our air forces less likely.

It has been reported that covertly we are now supplying our preferred rebels with a Santa-like abundance of anti-tank weapons from Saudi Arabia via our CIA.  Actually smaller quantities of those arms have been surprisingly effective in weakening Assad’s forces, which may have prompted Putin’s stepping up his support.  But that quiet support is lost in the news shuffle and we appear to be doing nothing in response to Putin’s attacks.

Right at this moment Russian planes are assisting government troops attempting to secure Aleppo in northern Syria.  It is reported that there has been an influx of several hundred Iranian troops and Hezbollah rebels to aid in this fight.   Meanwhile Putin continues to speak about his attacks in Syria as if most were aimed at ISIS, while the reality is just the opposite.

So, basically Putin is working against our interests while lying about it, his m. o. I would say.

The big question is how much does our inaction hurt our “super power” credibility in the Middle East and perhaps on the world stage?   When it comes to that credibility, how does one measure it?   I don’t know, but those who insist we need to push back harder on Putin believe the harm is great.  Others argue that our true interests are not at stake and emphasize the need for caution.

The debate is alive in the White House as described in an article in Politico:  Rift in Obama Administration Over Putin, though those pushing for more action are losing the argument for now.    The Christian Science Monitor  examines the credibility issue and how some of our allies in the region may become drawn to Putin’s decisiveness and determination when compared with Obama’s image of indecisiveness.

A defender of Obama’s cautiousness can be found in this article in Reuters with the catchy title:  How to respond to Russia in Syria while avoiding world war three.   The writer argues that our important interests are not being challenged by Putin and cautions against over reaction.   Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have an answer to the problem other than Obama must give up the notion that Assad must leave so that talks can begin to stabilize the country.

After four years of asserting Assad must go I can not imagine Obama allowing him to stay, so if some form of peace is to come some day to Syria it will be at a time of Putin’s choosing, his deciding he would be better off without Assad.

In the meantime we may just keep waiting and seeing.

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(P. S. – IF YOU HAVE MADE IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END OF THIS POST, I ADMIRE YOUR TENACITY.  THANK YOU.    THE SYRIAN SITUATION IS SO COMPLEX AND IN MY MIND DANGEROUS TO WORLD ORDER THAT I NEEDED TO PUT AT LEAST THIS MUCH DOWN TO BEGIN TO REALLY EXPLORE THE ISSUE.)

Syria, the Chicago Cubs, and the Democratic Debate Last Night

Syria remains news story #1 for me, but I want to write about the Cubs finally winning a post season series (only the fourth in their history) and I feel I should say something about the so-called democratic “debate”, so I’ll save Syria for now except for a brief point I’ll make at the end of this post.

Ah, the Cubs, who last won a world series before the world had ever heard of world wars.   Maybe Lincoln was president.  I can’t recall.   Last night they beat the Cardinals to win a five game series to make it to the National League finals.  Full disclosure, though I grew up in Chicagoland I can’t claim to have been a Cub’s fan all these years (my pain threshold isn’t that high), but I have friends and relatives who have been long suffering and I’m ecstatic for them.  Like the prodigal son, I’m primed to become a belated fanatical fan if they’ll have me.  Games this Saturday and Sunday for those who care.

As for last night.   First point, while there was a bit more debating than in the Republican food fights, not enough more to be significant.  These things are primarily performances which produce sound bites that either curry favor with the electorate or not.  We will actually have something like a debate (a back and forth where you actually delve into some issue rather than present only catchy zingers or verbal goofs) when these wannabes dwindle to two, one from each party.  Prior to that it’s all show business, which is why the Donald is doing so well.

Second point, I didn’t watch last night because I figured I would hear today whatever soundbites were memorable .  I have heard a number but can’t recall any of them.  I surmise because they weren’t all that memorable.  I do remember there was Hillary and Bernie and three other guys.

The general consensus seems to be Hillary had a strong performance, strong enough to likely discourage a Biden entrance in the race, and Bernie was Bernie, a likeable curmudgeon who probably pleased his base and added some more converts, but I just can’t get enthusiastic about a self-described “democratic socialist” especially one that from what I’ve heard seemed lacking in foreign policy chops.  Donald Trump can get away with that for the moment, but he is a different story,

Here is the anchor around Bernie’s neck as indicated by a recent study of voter likes and dislikes.  Fifty per cent of the sample said they would not vote for a “socialist” for president.  That was the biggest dislike margin of 11 categories below being a Muslim (38%) or an atheist (40%).   Hard to imagine climbing out of that hole.

Now that was a bit of fun.  This isn’t.   A proxy war between Russia and us is developing daily in Syria.  This isn’t same ol’ same ol’.  Even though on the surface Obama seems to be doing little, he must have OK’d shipping to rebels of our choosing a Santa size supply of anti-tank missiles while at the same time Russia is bombing those rebels while pretending to be joining us in the fight against ISIS.

Reminds me of the music lyric:  This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.

THIS IS THE BIG STORY THAT WILL LIKELY ONLY GET BIGGER, AND MORE NERVE WRACKING, IN COMING DAYS!

BE BACK TO YOU ON THAT…..

THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR: Hell is Heating Up

Prior to the rise of ISIS I referred to Syria as the problem from hell.   In the interim Syria has become hell and hell has spread beyond its borders.  Now on this very day Vladimir Putin ratchets up the inferno with a power play on behalf of President Assad while pretending to help us fight ISIS.

For days Russian planes have been bombing mostly “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters while Russia has either denied that or just clumped together all anti-Assad forces as “terrorists”.   Today I read that Russian ships have added missiles to the fray and some Russian troops have been landed.  What is this?  Ukraine all over again?

This is gut wrenchingly awkward for us because we have been supplying some of those moderates who are being bombed.  And this is where Putin has us by the you-know-whats because he can argue, unlike us, he was invited in to support the legitimate government of Syria, i. e. the bastard scores points in international law.

HERE’S THE BIG NEWS FOR TODAY!   We face a dilemma.  Chancing war with Russia or facing humiliation for failing to stop them.

I’m feeling cognitive dissonance because I see little mention of what is happening today on the three major cable stations.  I keep flipping back and forth and finally found a piece on CNN, a good piece by the way, describing what I’ve been writing about.  Oh, and I just saw something on Fox, but rushed apparently to get the latest on the Hillary emails.

Googling, I find little up to date news on the subject and what news there is shows nothing about how we will react to these developments.   In a piece in USA Today, I see this quote from Secretary of Defense Aston Carter:   “They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL. We believe that is a fundamental mistake.”

A fundamental mistake?   That’s it?  Please get back to me when you have a real response Mr. Secretary.

It reminds me of our President stating a few days ago that these moves by Russia were really a sign of their weakness, the weakness of Assad that is, who needs propping up.   That may well be true, but what are we going to do in reaction to the propping up of someone we religiously insist must go?

Frankly, Mr. Obama, I really wish you had never said “Assad must go,”  Some sort of deal might have been reached a long time ago.  The sad truth in international politics is that some times one must forge a deal with the devil.  Do you think Winston Churchill liked dealing with Joseph Stalin?

Mr. President, I know the danger of clashing with Russia in Syria, but if we keep letting Putin bomb the sh.t out of the people we supposedly are supporting, who will believe in our support in the future?

I know it is a tricky decision Mr. President, so I’ll try to be patient.

(P. S. – 10:20  a.m. Pacific Time) Just heard on CNN that there was a close encounter between an America and Russian Jet.)

General Petraeus on Vladimir Putin and Syria

Vladimir Putin  grabbed world attention yesterday with a disturbing power play in Syria.  He recently announced his intention to get militarily involved in Syria, supposedly to primarily degrade ISIS, but his long term support of the Assad government prompted doubts that was all he had in mind.   He acted surprisingly quickly by launching an air attack yesterday, but not on ISIS areas.  On “moderate” rebels that we have been supporting.

There had been plans to develop communication between the Russian military in the area and our own, to avoid accidents, but this had yet to begin.  Reportedly, we were given a one hour advance notice of this attack.

Not a good way to work together.

This seems pure Putin, talking about doing one thing and doing the opposite, always seeking some kind of edge, a routine on display in Ukraine over the past 18 months of civil war.   For example, he’d say his troops were not involved but many were easy to identify.   He would agree to some truce arrangement and then ignore it. (1)  

Not the kind of guy you want to normally partner with on anything, but there is a caveat:  Putin has been reliable in partnering on issues he deems vital to himself and Russia, which I tend to think are one and the same in his mind.   He partnered with Obama on removing most of the worst chemical weapons in Syria, which worked amazingly well given the nature of the conditions there.   As far as I could tell, Russia was a useful partner in the Iran nuclear deal, as well.   That Putin also cashed in on a lucrative arms deal with Iran in the process does not erase the rest.

So, what does Putin really want to get out of this Syrian incursion?   Rather than listen to me I suggest you turn to a piece by one of our most widely respected generals, David Petraeus, who  recently gave the Senate Armed Services Committee a multi-hour “tutorial” on the  Middle East.

He talked about Russia’s  provocative actions while adding that “doesn’t mean that we need to be provocative in return. But we do need to be firm in return; we do need to establish what [are] unacceptable actions.”  For example, telling “Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end — and that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying.”  

And how might Russia react to that?  He doesn’t say and therein you can see what a delicate, dicey process this is.

Because of a deteriorating economy (2), Petraeus thinks Putin “has actually a limited window of a couple of years to continue provocative actions,” but he cautioned, “we have to be very careful during this time, when he could actually lash out and be even more dangerous than he has been.”

Here is the Wapo piece on Petraeus written by Walter Pincus.

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(1)  In thinking about this post I thought of how little coverage Ukraine gets these days, even though a civil war is continuing there. Just isn’t a hot topic now, but I did just read of yet another truce in the making there.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Putin pushed for that, as he has bigger fish to fry right now and doesn’t want to be distracted.

(2)  That deteriorating economy has much to do with the sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia since the invasion – that and the drop in oil prices.  In time I think he’s on the losing end, but it is the danger of the lash out that most concerns.