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Inaction and Deception

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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One of the many interesting subplots of the Benghazi saga involves the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, which was asked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review State Department decisions before, during, and after the spontaneous demonstration—oops, terrorist attack—on the night of September 11, 2012. The board managed to conduct a review in which it chose not to interview several key figures in the Benghazi decision-making process, including—to take two rather obvious examples of people whom you’d think a review board might want to talk to—Secretary Clinton and Mark Thompson, the senior counterterrorism official at State. Thompson even volunteered to meet with the board, which decided not to take him up on the offer.

President Obama & Secretary Clinton

President Obama & Secretary Clinton


Having failed thoroughly to review what happened, the board produced a report that was somewhere between radically incomplete and positively misleading. It also—no surprise—failed to hold any high-ranking political appointees accountable for anything, while assigning culpability to four midlevel career civil servants. The board’s performance was so egregious that it’s now being investigated by the State Department Inspector General.

The White House doesn’t have an inspector general, so there will be no investigation of the White House-led interagency Atrocities Prevention Board announced last year with much hoopla by President Obama. The board was established pursuant to his “Presidential Study Directive 10” of August 4, 2011. Who knew there was such a thing as a “Presidential Study Directive”? But if our nanny-state president constitutes, as Tocqueville put it, “a unique power, tutelary, all powerful, but elected by citizens .  .  . [who] console themselves for being in tutelage by thinking that they themselves have chosen their schoolmasters,” we suppose it’s fitting that the president issue study directives.

But this study directive wasn’t just about more study. It called for action:

Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide. Unfortunately, history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not come to fruition without concerted and coordinated effort.

Unfortunately, the only concerted and coordinated effort the Obama administration has made to prevent atrocities in, say, Syria, has been .  .  . to set up the Atrocities Prevention Board. And the existence of said board seems to have had no effect in getting the U.S. government, or anyone else, to act to prevent atrocities in Syria or elsewhere. 

This is the administration’s foreign policy modus operandi: Obama’s Accountability Review Board fails to hold any Obama appointee accountable, and Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board fails to prevent atrocities. The president ducks responsibility for the actions of his officials even as he ducks responsibility for what’s happening in the world. In other words, Obama’s foreign policy apparatus does what you’d expect, given the premises of his pretend-to-lead-from-behind-but-in-fact-don’t-lead-at-all foreign policy.

Fortunately, Congress isn’t bound by Obama’s study directives or the findings of his administration’s review boards. Obama administration appointees can be held accountable by elected officials in Congress exercising their investigative and oversight responsibilities. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee got off to a good start with its Benghazi hearings. But it was only a start. It’s now up to Congress to move ahead with the many tools at its disposal to insist on the truth about the failures and the subsequent cover-up of Benghazi. And it’s also up to Congress to try to spur into action a president who would much rather talk about preventing atrocities than do something to prevent them. After all, as President Obama said in justifying the use of military force in his Nobel Peace Prize address, “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.”

Inaction abroad and deception at home. The Obama administration should be the subject of a study directive to ensure we never sink so low again.


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