Reading the tea leaves of the Libya congressional hearings

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the NYT:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12 (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place).

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation.

A more detailed (and official) presentation of the events of that day has now emerged from testimony delivered by Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs, Bureau of Diplomatic Security:

The attack began at approximately 9:40 pm local time. Diplomatic Security agents inside the compound heard loud voices outside the walls, followed by gunfire and an explosion. Dozens of attackers then launched a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in its size and intensity. They forced their way through the pedestrian gate, and used diesel fuel to set fire to the Libyan 17th February Brigade members’ barracks, and then proceeded towards the main building.

At the same time, attackers swept across the compound …. At 11pm, members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site.

…. They took heavy fire as they pulled away from the main building and on the street outside the compound.

…. In the early morning, an additional security team arrived from Tripoli and proceeded to the annex. Shortly after they arrived, the annex started taking mortar fire, with as many as three direct hits on the compound. It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded.

A large number of Libyan government security officers subsequently arrived in more than 50 vehicles and escorted the remaining Americans to the airport. While still at the airport, we were able to confirm reports that the Ambassador’s body was at the Benghazi General Hospital.

Witnesses also told Congress that they had felt in the months prior to the attack that the new Libyan government did not have the capability to protect the consulate or confront the “al Qaeda” presence in the country.

The biggest headache for the White House has been that contradictory remarks made by Obama Administration officials and the US intelligence community last month about the nature of the attacks have yet to be fully resolved. Arch-neoconservative John Podhoretz implied that the Foreign Service and intelligence community are falling on their swords to protect the White House, which is surely a stretch given the reality of the Administration’s simple unpreparedness in light of a disaster like this goes a long way in explaining the muddled responses. But given the way in which information has been leaked/obtained by other news outlets about intelligence community assessments about the attack, it’s hard to not come to that conclusion Podhoretz does. Former DCIA (and current Romney advisor) Michael Hayden certainly feels this way as well, taking a defensive tone in a CNN editorial criticizing the White House.

I think what we will end up seeing, though, is that Obama Administration just failed to gauge the warnings it was receiving. Libya simply does not seem to have been prioritized despite the warnings; it was the success story, things were under control, the peripheral MENA theater compared to Syria or Egypt, and even Yemen.

Anti-interventionists in Congress reiterated their opposition to the whole Libyan issue by noting that NATO intervention gave Islamists breathing room. One such Islamist is Abd al Hakim Bilhaj, who has an instructive interview on his countrymen’s views of the attacks circulating in the UK Arabic press.

Before his rise to prominence in the Tripolitanian Military Council as a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was a person of interest to US intelligence because of his anti-Qadhafi AfPak excursions (arrested and extradited to Libya in 2004, he was pardoned by the regime in 2010). Bilhaj, who Al-Watan Party was creamed in the summer elections, recently granted an interview to the UK’s Arabic press in which he condemned the attacks specifically, and al Qaeda in general, though ever politic, he did not blame any particular group.

Bilhaj, whose position has weakened greatly the 2012 elections and probably hopes to regain some influence in the new, “tense” atmosphere, is no fool. His reading of the mood in Libya — simmering anger at the militias, limited confidence in the government, an unwillingness to handover weapons “just in case” — shows that while Libya is not coming apart at the seams, it has weathered some truly trying tests better than others since 2011. Some of them have not gone so well, as we’ve seen with the highly symbolic airport siege, but other tests, such as the summer elections, did not end badly at all (and as Issandr has noted, when we talk about Libyan Islamists were are not generally talking about Salafists, though such men are represented among the militias and new political parties).

The attacks are indeed troubling because they illustrate how organized and professionally competent these Islamist organizations are — and how they have likely infiltrated the government.

But, for starters, the Libyan military did not abandon its posts when asked to defend American lives and property.

And if there were no crowds railing against that stupid Muslim-trolling con-artist film in Benghazi, there certainly were crowds protesting the attacks after the fact. Bear in mind that even in, say, Yemen, where protestors did storm embassy compounds and the US is deeply unpopular for its involvement in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, the anti-American turnout was at most a few hundred people — perhaps a hundred times that number turned out to protest the attacks in Libya in a “Friday of Outrage”. The attacks were a final straw for many Libyans already tired of the militias’ gunslinging (as was the case in Yemen, and elsewhere).

Perhaps the aftermath of the attacks will serve as a wake-up call for the new Libyan government, which is still reporting clashes in the stronghold of Bani Walid and hasn’t gotten the worst of the militias to cease their “polity within a polity” behavior. Problems with the judiciary and police are not going away anytime soon, either. Obviously, Libyans will have a long road to walk, as Borzou Daragahi notes in his latest dispatch for The Financial Times, with the grim subheading of “[o]ptimism born of the July elections has been replaced by uncertainty and fear.” It’s worth noting that the protests turned violent in some cases and demonstrators clashed with fighters:

The result [of the “Friday of Outrage”] the has been political and economic deadlock in Tripoli as the various political forces battle for control of the direction of the new Libya. No camp wants any other to achieve success. Laws to clarify the role of civil society and private investment have been stuffed into drawers.

…. Islamist militias and their political allies now seethe with anger, feeling betrayed by the nation they defended during the revolution. They are openly mistrustful of the former exiles now dominating the government. They whisper of dark conspiracies by Gaddafi loyalists teaming up with liberal politicians and western powers.

But they are walking it, no one can deny that … except for Fox News, apparently.

While I’ve been critical of the Libyan government’s response to the militias, I’ve also been critical of the US for thinking that intervention could be carried out from 30,000 feet and everyone goes home in time for happy hour (Libyans not included).

They claimed interventionism, now they’d better act the postwar part of helping the government handle such difficult matters as setting up a judiciary, training a police force and securing loose arms, and that doesn’t mean putting dead Navy SEALs in a talking points memo or dispatching a fleet to show that all of a sudden “we mean business.”

Whether a less muscle-bound policy in Libya would have somehow prevented this all is going to be debated for years to come. Our track record in the region suggests, though, that more of such policies now, directed at Libya out of a desire to “avenge” our loss of life and face there, are not going to help anyone — except the armed Islamist spoilers Libyans are demonstrating their disdain for.