EDITOR: In its editorial demanding that Ambassador Rice and Secretary Clinton resign, the Mountain Democrat tries, but fails, to score cheap political points.
At least since the Vietnam war, the history of the Department of State is replete with incidents in which embassies reported events too early, only to be found wrong shortly thereafter. Henry Kissinger was notorious for insisting that our embassies ought to beat the wire services with breaking news. Kissinger was obsessed with public relations and his press image. What Kissinger did not understand is that there is no penalty for wire services getting it wrong: they can issue a “correction” the next day. For an ambassador to get the facts wrong can have disastrous consequences, including, in the case of two ambassadors in the Arab world, getting fired for reporting the facts too early — and wrongly, and making the president look foolish at a press conference.
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, the pressure on government agencies to come up with instant analyses of “what happened” is tremendous. State Department officers are not news reporters; their job is not to compete with Reuters or the AP, but to analyze news events as they may affect the U.S.
No doubt under pressure, Ambassador Rice went out too early with a story she believed to be true. Had the administration continued to claim that all the facts are not yet in, the right wing press would have immediately accused it of stonewalling embarrassing truths. It’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
The problems of getting at the facts are exponentially more difficult in a Third World country like Libya where no effective government exists, and where “facts” change depending on the personal agenda of your interlocutor.
By going to Benghazi, Ambassador Christopher Stephens knew perfectly well the dangers he was facing. He knew that the recently-opened consulate building was not yet up to security standards, but he went anyway: that’s the prerogative of an ambassador.
In today’s world, the principal role of an ambassador is to “show the flag;” this is best done by personal visits and, by going to Benghazi, the ambassador wanted to show U.S. support for the struggling Libyan regime.
Danger is part and parcel of Foreign Service life. While serving in Liberia, I was personally targeted by Hezbollah. When asked if I wanted to come back to Washington, my answer was easy: that’s the life I chose, for better and for worse. If I’d wanted a safe job, I’d have been selling cars in some suburb. I’m pretty sure that it would have been Ambassador Stephens’ answer as well, and he would resent chicken hawk editorial writers, and politicians like Congressman Darrell Issa trying to make political hay out of his death and the events surrounding it.