By Michael O'Hanlon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings (where he was a colleague of Rice’s for several years), teaches at Princeton and Columbia and Johns Hopkins and is a member of the CIA External Advisory Board. The views expressed are his own.
Ambassador Susan Rice has been roundly criticized of late for her comments made on five Sunday morning talk shows the weekend after the Benghazi tragedy in which four Americans lost their lives to a terrorist attack. Because Rice stated her belief that the violence was the result of a mass demonstration gone bad, rather than the planned extremist attacks we now know them to be, some have even gone so far as to demand her resignation from her current cabinet position as United States ambassador to the United Nations.
This is way off the mark and extremely unfair to a dedicated official who has served the country tirelessly and remarkably over her four years in the Obama administration. Rice did not choose all her words perfectly that weekend, even based on what was known at the time, it is true. There should have been a bit more nuance and more acknowledgement of the uncertainty in some of them. But there is no basis for concluding that she sought to mislead, and no reason to think that harm came to the country's interests because of her comments. While there are issues worth debating in regards to Benghazi, to Libya, and to the state of the Arab awakenings more generally, the unkind focus on Rice badly misses the mark.
To begin, Rice’s initial hypothesis was widely shared and reasonably construed. There was strong circumstantial evidence at first to believe the attacks were largely a result of mob reactions to the terrible homemade video entitled The Innocence of Muslims, made by an amateur filmmaker in California. Similar incidents had caused similar outbursts in the broader Muslim world before. Be it the furor over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed several years ago, the mass demonstrations in Afghanistan when Korans were accidentally burned and the bodies of Taliban insurgents mistreated by U.S. troops in the war effort there, or the demonstration in Cairo on the very same September 11 date as the tragedy in Benghazi, there was a track record of such perceived slights against Islam leading to mass unrest and even violence in Muslim countries.
In the business of intelligence, and diplomacy, much information is circumstantial and many theories are initially conjectural. That is an unavoidable reality of the business. Given what was initially known about what happened in Benghazi, this hypothesis was far from unwarranted.
Second, for these reasons, many in the U.S. intelligence community who were tracking this event came to exactly those same hypotheses themselves in the opening days after the Benghazi tragedy. Indeed, their assessments provided the main basis for Rice's comments. I know that because I was in contact with a number of intelligence officials on September 12 and talked to some about it. To be sure, they generally also recognized that the initial information was incomplete and potentially unreliable. But it took several days for their assessments to be revised based on clearer data. In a distant city in a chaotic country where we have minimal presence and relatively few allies, that is unsurprising. Some would call it an intelligence failure, but we use that term far too loosely in this country. The world is not completely transparent to any of us, and nor will it ever be.
As such, Rice’s only mistake was not to caveat her initial conclusions adequately each and every time she voiced them. Taking her statements collectively, I did not detect any major problem in this regard, but individual pieces of several statements could have been phrased slightly more precisely, it is true.
That brings us to the final point, going beyond Rice to the Obama administration more generally. Benghazi was indeed a terrible tragedy, and in principle perhaps preventable. Secretary of State Clinton has nobly accepted responsibility as the nation’s top diplomat for not responding to requests for additional security there adequately. But such mistakes will inevitably sometimes happen in a dangerous world where Americans in and out of uniform serve bravely and with full awareness of the dangers before them. We must not turn them into political tempests. To go to a zero-defect and zero-mistake mentality where we only place diplomats within huge fortified compounds, or only deploy them to the field when accompanied by large contingents of armed guards, is against the credo that most of those diplomats themselves espouse. And it would not serve American interests.
We do not criticize a general each and every time he makes a tactical decision that tragically and perhaps preventably leads to the loss of some of his troops. We must not do so with our appointed officials, or our top civilian leaders in this country either.