In 1979, the Carter Administration precipitously abandoned the Shah of Iran, Washington’s long-time and loyal ally in Tehran, once widespread dissatisfaction with his regime surfaced. In the melee that ensued, and which accompanied the return from exile of the radical Ayatollah Khomeini, student groups led a successful assault on the huge American Embassy compound. Washington, believing the insurgent forces could be placated by throwing the Shah under the bus, failed completely to heed warning signs in the build-up to the storming of the diplomatic compound, and was caught flat-footed.
Once in control of the American facility, the radicals gained access to innumerable classified documents and microfilm cards (which standard operating procedures dictated were supposed to have been destroyed earlier) containing sensitive intelligence information. Additionally, because other security protocols had not been followed, certain individuals taken hostage were identified to the radicals as intelligence personnel, and subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques” during their long months in captivity.
As a direct result of the fall of the embassy in Tehran, the U.S. lost access to invaluable technological facilities, including some in northern Iran that provided unique electronic listening posts for then-Soviet missile ranges. Perhaps even more disastrous, was the compromising of the identities of numerous cooperating agents in Iran and elsewhere in the region; many of whom were subsequently tracked down and killed. The loss of such resources continues to be felt to this day.
Fast forwarding to last year’s mis-named “Arab Spring,” the Obama Administration found itself in much the same situation as did its predecessor in 1979 -- and appears to have engaged in just as serious a misperception. Apparently believing that popular uprisings against unpopular regimes in the Middle East, including Egypt and Libya, signaled an embrace of Jeffersonian Democracy in the Arab World, Washington again let down its guard – this time with immediate tragic results.
In the broadest sense, policy makers in Washington fail to understand the deep-seated religious zeal through which many Middle Easterners – including some of those educated in the West -- view their society and the world. They also appear not to comprehend that allegiances among many Arabs are based not so much on notions of political solidarity, profession, or the many other indices of “identity” familiar to us in western countries, but rather on tribal customs and background. The nature and use of violence – while well-known to virtually every culture in the world -- occupies a peculiar place in Arab culture that must first be understood and then forcefully and consistently defended against.
In a more focused sense, the Obama Administration seems to have made almost every mistake capable of being made, on the ground in Libya. Everything went wrong – from the failure to properly evaluate and disseminate relevant intelligence data (not “actionable” but “relevant” intelligence) to the physical aspects of knowing where your people are and maintaining communication with them during an emergency. With all the technology available to the United States of America, in Libya or anywhere else on the face of the earth, imagine “losing” an Ambassador inside a building controlled by our own government.
In fact, imagine an American ambassador placing himself – or allowing his staff to place him -- in such a situation in an area in which violence is clearly predicted and should have been expected, and then being taken to a “safe” house which location and layout was already known to well-armed assailants.
It is not difficult to chronicle numerous other mistakes made by our government in assessing the prelude to the violence last week in Cairo and Benghazi, and then elsewhere. Why, for example, do we rely still in such countries as these on local security personnel to provide the “first line” of defense? Why do we not anticipate violence ensuing from actions almost identical to earlier episodes that precipitated violence – does Washington really believe Arab culture has changed in the months since an idiot “preacher” in Florida threatened to stage a Quran burning? Why apparently did we not equip a “safe house” in an area known to harbor violent extremists, with the basic back-up generators and individual gas-mask protection devices now required in virtually every major federal government building in our country?
The list goes on and on. And all this Administration does is send its emissaries out to blame a film maker in California; hoping that by avoiding accountability it will avoid defeat at the polls. And as Washington dithers, families mourn and the world burns.