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Yes Virginia, There Was Actual Foreign Policy Content at Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing

One of my favorite movies of all-time is Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”.   The film features Leonardo DiCaprio in what I believe to be his strongest role to date as aviation mogul Howard Hughes.  The film leaves history to comment on Hughes’ later days as a Las Vegas recluse and focuses instead on his days as an up & coming filmmaker, business man, pilot, and playboy.

My favorite scene in that movie is Hughes’ appearance before a U.S. Senate investigative committee on charges that he took millions from the U.S. government to build an airplane that was never completed and, as the charge went, would never fly.   The stage is a multi-day public interrogation with Hughes’ reputation in the balance.  And over those days, through montage we see this man, a single man, grow impatient of the war-profiteering charges, begin to accuse the accusers, and wear down the entire committee until their true motive – assassination of his character to aid his deep-pocketed competitor – is exposed before the nation.  It is every inch the equal of the best from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend seeking it out.

That’s Hollywood.  That kind of hearing room drama isn’t what one typically sees in the real world disposal of Senate business with its continuing resolutions, its snooze-inducing prattle about ARBs, its dedication to technocratic details that every once in an age crescendo into the mundane.  And even with the future implications attached to Secretary Clinton’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday in many ways it was set to be an anti-climax.  The cathartic thrill of the big rough-and-tumble that Republicans wanted to have over the September 11th attacks in Benghazi may have slightly diminished with the passage of a few months for collective amnesia to set in and the identity of our president for the next four years decided.  There were still stakes.  A consulate (not an embassy, more like an outpost really) was breached.  Ambassador Stevens was murdered along with both American and Libyan security personnel.  The outcome would determine the conduct of State Dept. operations for the foreseeable future.

The prospect of this inquiry being used as a political bludgeon against President Obama’s re-election bid has expired.  But Sec. Clinton’s appearance has implications should she choose to run for president again in 2016.   Yes, the GOP set their hatchetmen to task, trying to goad Mrs. Clinton into a statement damning enough to premptively swiftboat her out of the running.  No such luck.  It turns out if you’re going to send assassins after someone’s character, it’s usually a good idea that they actually know character when they see it.  In that case, Rand Paul doesn’t quite fit the bill.  Chris Matthews probably had the best take on Paul’s assertion that if he were president he would have fired Sec. Clinton, remarking that it reminded him “of when Snoopy thought he was the Red Baron”.

Yes, this is a sordid battle over reputation and political viability.  No one outside Washington D.C. cares for the fact, but we accept it, along with other instances where much worse tragedy has been used to even pettier ends.  These are politicians grandstanding in the muck.  Their natural habitat.  No surprises.

What was pleasantly surprising as I watched wasn’t the political gamesmanship but the actual content of the opening debate .  As I poured over the video (C-SPAN, created by cable – adored by bloggers!), the initial exchange between Hillary and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker incredulously included a few moments that defied the prevalent lowest common denominator mentality.  America was robbed of a higher level foreign policy debate by a 2012 presidential race that reveled in the irrelevant.  But in the chamber yesterday there was a subtle but very a real philosophical skirmish taking place.  Being a Southern Senator, Corker goes on a bit:

I do want to say that Benghazi, I think to all of us, represents a lot of different things.  In some ways, the aftermath in particular of what we saw represents the very worst of Washington.  And you know, the most bizarre briefing I think I ever attended was the briefing we has on Sept 20th, where the intelligence community said more than nothing, and it was a bizarre briefing at best.  It happened in the middle of a political campaign, and obviously there was a lot of spin from the White House, and a lot of comments made on both sides of the aisle, which heightened a lot of the focus on Benghazi.  I think it also represented a sclerotic  department that in many ways made decisions that weren’t based on what was best for those in the field.

But I think it also represents an awakening.  I know that you have known this, and I know especially many of the members on this committee have known this.  But the spiking of the ball and the thinking that when Osama bin Laden was gone that was the end of Al Qaeda, we know nothing could be further from the truth.  And the Arab Spring has ushered in a time where Al Qaeda is on the rise.

The world in many ways is even more dangerous as we lack a central command and instead have these nodes scattered throughout North Africa and other places. And I think this creates an opportunity for us to develop a policy that really addresses the world as it really is today.

There’s more to Sen. Corker’s statement than just another fussy-pants, red-state, Benghazi truth-er thundering over spilled milk.   His statement should carry significance with foreign policy observers for a couple of reasons.  One is that he does at least plaintively mew out a call to end the demagoguing of the Benghazi assault in favor of real oversight and departmental reform.  In fact, that departmental reform has already begun under Clinton’s leadership.  But it’s nice to hear a Republican move beyond using this incident as a political chew-toy however brief the reprieve.

Its greater significance is the direct line he draws between the Arab Spring and the supposed renewed activity of Al Qaeda.  Critics claim the Obama administration’s foreign policy is a carbon copy of the Bush foreign policy, but Obama’s handling of Arab dictators is a massive departure from Bush and from all modern-era American foreign policy.  He is the first American president to withdraw American support from Middle East strongmen and direct it to the democratic activists in the Arab world.  There hasn’t been a thorough public discussion of the Obama administration’s thinking on the matter.  It was one of a roomful of elephants unacknowledged in the presidential debate season: Doesn’t this just prove the Arab world was better off with their dictators?

It was not Sen. Corker’s demand that Secretary Clinton account for a security lapse, and  tweak a few regulations around diplomatic security.  He went straight for the throat of Obama’s heretofore unannunciated foreign policy (who needs an actual policy doctrine when he’s already got a Nobel hanging over his chest?).  What was demanded of Sec. Clinton then, was a vigorous exposition and subsequent defense of our entire reason for being in Libya in the first place.  Sec. Clinton with brackets added for clarity:

This is a great opportunity as well a serious threat to our country. I hope we seize the opportunity. It’s not going to be easy because these new countries have no experience with democracy. They don’t have any real experience among the [revolutionary activist] leaders in running a country, in doing security.

So yes we now face a spreading jihadist threat. We have driven a lot of the AQ operatives out of the fatah out of Afghanistan, Pakistan — killed a lot of them including, of course Bin Laden.

But we have to recognize this [jihadist extremism] is a *global* movement.   We can kill leaders but until we help establish strong democratic institutions, until we do a better job communicating our values and building relationships we’re going to be faced with this level of instability. 

Don’t look now kids, but Hillary Clinton may just have prescribed an antidote for the global war on terror.  For more than a decade the question on which America has been left hanging has been how do we end the war on terror?  What is the endgame?  Sec. Clinton’s statement about building strong democratic institutions has fallen from the lips of many a bureaucrat before her.  What’s new (to my ears at least) is the notion that building and securing institutions is the end, and military counter-terror ops the occasionally necessary but woefully inadequate means.   It’s no small shift.  Until now, supporting democracy in the Arab world has  been presented as either a luxury or a ruse.   Never a necessity.  And certainly never an offensive tactic.

Is it possible that the Obama administration is willing pursue strategy based on the  realization that if we can’t out-murder the terrorists (or don’t wish to) then we’ll have to out organize them?  Sen. Corker and like-minded others seem to be under the impression that to the extent that there is presently a resurgence in Al Qaeda’s operations and recruitment that it is the direct result of emergent democracy in the Arab world.   Even as it comes as she’s on the way out, cheers to “Give ’em Hell” Hillary for standing on the conviction that while the aftermath of the Arab Spring has introduced a period of great instability, it shouldn’t be interpreted as the cause of terrorism.  Long term, it’s probably the solution.

Time and further viewing will decide if this is a simple response to a leading question, filed and forgotten, or if it is a foreign policy doctrine in the making.  Either way it was good that one  high point of the day involved actual commitment to an idea.  Howard Hughes eat your heart out.

Mr. Johnson of Wisconsin, and Mr. Paul of Kentucky you may now return to your regularly scheduled cage matches.


Video clips:

Senator Corker:

Secretary Clinton:

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