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Benghazi’s Real Lessons

By Allison Stanger
December 23, 2012 6:30 PM EST
Illustration by Anne-Margot Ramstein
Illustration by Anne-Margot Ramstein

An independent inquiry into the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans this September found U.S. security measures to have been inadequate. Four midlevel State Department officials have lost their jobs in response.

But learning the right lessons from Benghazi requires looking beyond “leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department” to the “systemic failures” the advisory board report referenced. The State Department’s dependence on private security contractors is one aspect of those systemic failures that has yet to be publicly discussed.

The State Department has long been understaffed for the unprecedented mission the U.S. has pursued in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Its in-house security provider, Diplomatic Security, is ill equipped to do its job in three war zones simultaneously. Currently, less than 1,000 DS agents guard 275 American embassies and consulates. The State Department has tried to stretch its coverage by hiring armed contractors to keep its diplomats out of harm’s way.

Diplomatic Insecurity

But State didn’t have this option in Libya. Many news media reports mistakenly identified the two Navy SEALs who perished in Benghazi as security contractors for the State Department. They were not. In early 2012, Libya’s new government had expressly banned the use of foreign or domestic armed security contractors on Libyan soil.

The State Department thus had no choice; if it wanted to behave diplomatically, it had to rely on the nascent Libyan police, unarmed locals under contract, its own DS service and an assist from the Pentagon. When the chief security officer at the American Embassy in Tripoli requested a third extension of that U.S. military support and was denied by his colleagues in Washington, ostensibly for cost reasons, this created a security vacuum that terrorists were able to exploit.

The State Department has long used local personnel to guard its embassies abroad without significant incident. The leap of faith it took in Afghanistan and Iraq was to extend similar arrangements to war zones. International companies hiring locals and third-party nationals offered to provide security in these high-threat environments. Instead of fortifying DS to do the job, State could contract out to these companies for security as needed; when the extraordinary wartime circumstances had drawn to a close, it would not be stuck with a surplus of DS agents.

Over the course of a dangerous decade, extraordinary circumstances became ordinary ones, and what began as a stopgap measure became business as usual. The State Department continued to rely on Blackwater (later Xe and now Academi) for its security needs even after Blackwater’s hired guns had become highly controversial, simply because it had no choice but to find some way to operate safely in Iraq.

Yet the extended use of private security contractors in post-conflict states had unintended negative consequences for the countries we were trying to help. In Afghanistan, for example, a professional Afghan army and police force was hard to build when trainees could make far better money indirectly working for the Americans as security contractors. Moreover, indigenous private security companies operating as subcontractors on U.S. contracts all too easily became de facto militias.

Empty Threats

These are two of the stated reasons that, in August 2010, President Hamid Karzai ordered all private security contractors, both foreign and domestic, to cease operations in Afghanistan by the close of the year. He later had to backpedal because implementing his decree would have effectively ended the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

With the congressional spotlight turned on Benghazi, now is a good time to consider the many ways that U.S. reliance on armed contractors has compromised its interests. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has requested additional money from Congress to implement the board’s findings, including hiring 150 new DS agents, a 15 percent increase in the force. At a hearing last week, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who will be nominated to succeed Clinton, placed some of the blame for Benghazi on Congress for failing to give the State Department the resources it needed.

It’s not just a matter of resources, but also of how those resources are deployed. Last week’s hearing didn’t confront this question. The word “contractor,” for example, doesn’t even appear in the transcript. With congressional acquiescence, the department can hire more DS agents -- though once the urgency of the Benghazi report recedes, whether Congress has the stomach to pay for enough of them will be an open and continuing question. In the absence of that commitment, hiring security contractors will continue to be the path of least political resistance.

That raises a larger question about how ambitious U.S. foreign policy can afford to be. The contractors’ wars that the U.S. has waged in the past decade have been undertaken on the assumption that the private sector could solve problems that were beyond the capacity of the U.S. government to resolve. The real lesson of Benghazi may be that prolonged dependence on contractors can keep us from asking whether what we’re trying to get done is even doable in the first place.

(Allison Stanger is the Russell Leng professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College and the author of “One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Allison Stanger at stanger@middlebury.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

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