America’s Dysfunction in One Speech

No one on national television will ever care about the real story of Benghazi.


Patricia Smith is a grieving woman, and is allowed her grief. And she’s angry over her loss and that’s understandable. I bear her no ill will; I wish her peace.

That said, let me identify the three major issues I see here whose absence illuminates the rot in American political discourse:

  • No one wants to talk about whether or not we should have been in Benghazi in the first place. Following the entirely predictable (and predicted) collapse of Iraq and subsequent long-term disaster, the oligarchic Beltway consensus was that Libya’s teetering state should be tipped over. At no point has this rationale been significantly challenged by anyone in power. The entire intervention in Libya has – once again – led to a chaotic mess of what used to be a country, with spillover effects in the region, none of them good. We can’t forget Iraq, but Libya seems to have no trouble slipping into the memory hole of bad ideas, and the enablers that promoted it have never been held to account, largely because they’re all the same people and have no interest in mea culpas.
  • Congress – and mostly Democrats due to political reasons – never significantly challenged the fact that the American intervention in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution. The Democrats, for reasons of party loyalty, never allowed Congress to proceed with a formal rebuke over Libyan intervention. The GOP made an attempt and it went nowhere. Ultimately, Congress rolled over because arguing about Libya is really arguing against killing people, an ugly past-time that is basically guaranteed to earn support from the majority of inhabitants in your district.
  • The State Department and Hillary Clinton specifically declared to Congress that there was no need for their authorization, despite the War Powers Resolution. Not only was this against the Resolution, it also was against the limits set by the Department of Justice and a raft of precedent. Basically the Executive told the Legislature that it had no power, they’d be doing whatever they wanted anyway, and to trust them, and the Legislature ultimately went along with it. This isn’t a story of just Congress being useless, it’s also a story of the continued growth of presidential executive power in America.

Instead, what came of Benghazi? Endless reams of interviews and panels and inquiries, all to determine that the CIA was stirring up trouble in Benghazi, the Embassy was essentially undefended and overly reliant on local untrustworthy militias, that reinforcements were either going to come from the CIA who wanted to stay as undercover and unseen as possible or from Italy (too far to actually do anything in a combat situation where airfield access is unknown)… and oh yeah, some emails.

Benghazi was an undefended outpost of an imperial power that was put smack in the middle of its own stirred-up covert intelligence shenanigans, in order to attempt to stabilize a country that had been destabilized for bad reasons clear both before and after the interventions. Absolutely none of that has penetrated into the wider discourse in this country.

Clinton’s emails did. And it turns out that she carelessly shared classified material with people cleared to see them. And that’s dumb, but it didn’t murder anyone in Benghazi. It’s the kind of thing that gets a Navy officer two years probation and a $7,000 fine.

This poor woman is pissed off that Clinton said that a video caused the attack. It didn’t. That was at worst a lie, at best a mistake. The real reason the embassy was attacked was because it was a vulnerable American outpost in a volatile region, a truth that transcends the particulars, and that’s the reason why Ms Smith can’t get an answer. The answer is, “knowing everything we do about Iraq, which only reminded us of the obvious truths we knew before Iraq, we Americans collectively attacked a place, overthrew its despot, watched the region crumble, then put an embassy in the middle of it all and didn’t properly fund its defense”. And that answer indicts not just Clinton, but pretty much all of Washington.

None of that came up. None of that will come up. The hawks who clamor always for more war sneak by. The Congress that can’t do much other than grandstand sneaks by. A Presidential executive that will go to war when and how it wants to and will tell Congress to get stuffed sneaks by. The Pentagon’s budget, ever-ballooning, never auditable, grows and sneaks by. Instead, we’re treated to the parade of a grieving woman and told to hate Clinton. The Republicans should be ashamed; everyone involved in this should be.

Occupy Baghdad is Democracy on Hard Mode

These folks can’t just go back to getting their film theory degrees from Swarthmore when this is over.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a Shi’ite cleric in Baghdad, and a generally popular leader there. He’s been active and saying provocative things for a decade: how post-war looting was okay so long as you tithed to his religious movement, how the US needed to get out of Iraq, and how Iraq needed to run its own business. Oh. I should also mention his massive armed militia and how he’s been in and out of Iran, organizing folks, calling for jihad on the American occupation, getting his militia to call up and stand down as needed in order to massage events within Iraq, and generally being the most important figure in Iraq that doesn’t hold official office.

665003303001_4873386662001_vs-57265a53e4b0bc854365986d-782203293001He had announced he was stepping out of politics in 2014, but recently marched his way into Iraq’s Green Zone in order to call for the end of the existing government structure in Iraq. The Green Zone is basically an old-school imperial structure, a $1B fortress within Baghdad that the coalition forces kept dumping money into until they decided it was safe. It’s now used by the Iraqis and whoever has an embassy out there.

Well, Sadr – here’s another interesting aside, the attendees at Saddam Hussein’s hanging execution chanted “Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!” at Hussein’s death because the guy really is that popular – when he entered the Green Zone, the local Iraqi army general greeted him with a few kisses and a chair. Sadr showed up, gave some speeches about corruption, and everyone decided to camp out and occupy the Green Zone.

They were Occupying because corruption in Iraq (along with most every other Middle Eastern country) is endemic, and the current prime minister Haider Jawad Kadhim Al-Abadi has been totally unsuccessful in de-corrupting the current governmental structure, largely because the only way the US could create a stable government in Iraq was to basically bake in the corruption beforehand by giving every major ethnic group a bounty and telling the co-opted leaders of each group to run that bounty. Now, that really was probably the only way they could’ve done it and “baking in corruption” wasn’t the primary purpose, but it sure as hell was a second-order effect that was necessary. Patronage is a thing and if you don’t have money and titles to dole out then F your democracy is basically how things go out there.

So, Sadr is out there telling the leadership to start listening to Abadi. And if they don’t, well… they’re chanting “Peaceful” from the walls of the Green Zone but I bet those voices don’t carry too far past the blast walls.

And now, they’ve moved into the Parliament building. There are real stakes here, and the country is once again teetering toward collapse. It hasn’t fallen yet, and maybe never will – just going on like a shambling zombie.

Iraq has been torn apart by its ongoing sectarian crisis. The Kurds are ready to bolt. The Shi’ite masses are tired of being pushed around by corrupt officials. The Sunnis are tired of getting shot at and burned out by the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias’ purposefully over-eager and trigger-happy pursuit of ISIL.

Keep this place in mind the next time someone in Washington tells you that we need to liberate somewhere, because you know what? Iraq is still more functional than Libya.

UPDATE: I beat the Atlantic by a day! Also the author is also a better writer than me. 🙂