Steering Clear of the Benghazi Controversy

Members of the armed services should stay out of the partisan spitting match around Benghazi.

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A man walks near a charred vehicle at the entrance of the damaged American consulate building, in Benghazi, Libya, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Sen. Lindsey Graham is determined to get more answers about the deadly Sept. 11 attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The South Carolina Republican said he will hold up Senate confirmation of President Barack Obama's nominees to head the Pentagon and the CIA until he gets that information.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When most people think of the subject of civil-military relations they often think of admirals and generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff interacting with the president and the secretaries of State and Defense at the highest nexus of decision-making. But that is only one (however important) element of such relations. 

Another important aspect is that between and among the military and the society it swears to protect – and further complicated by the fact that the military is both drawn from, and a part of, society while also being somewhat apart from society. Since 9/11 the gap in apart-ness has grown, as a very small part of the population has served, and some have served repeatedly, in combat zones overseas.

Because so few have served, this has in many cases created – contra the Vietnam era – a period where many take the views of individual service members very seriously on any manner of topics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

And this takes us to the Benghazi incident. Recently Fox News has aired an interview with a purported special operations forces member who claims to have known the background on what happened on September 11, 2012 and states unequivocally that forces were available to respond to the attacks. Billy Birdzell, a former Marine officer guest posting at Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog last week, however, shows that the deployment timelines, authorizations necessary and the tyranny of distance simply make that clearly not the case.

Even the CBS News report of statements by the Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya at the time, Gregory Hicks, about the denied request to send four lightly armed special operations forces personnel 600 miles from Tripoli to Benghazi in the midst of a chaotic situation don't offer a smoking gun for purposeful inaction. Furthermore, absent the requisite refueling aircraft, any combat aircraft sent from Aviano air base in northern Italy would not have been able to respond to the situation on the ground either.

Look, bad things happened in Benghazi. Ambassador Chris Stevens was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the consulate and the CIA station were unprepared for the events of that night. None of the above is meant to give the administration a pass at all.

But individuals and media organizations should be careful in fact -checking their reporting; otherwise the public might reasonably draw conclusions, correctly or incorrectly, about the motivation for such reports. For members of the military community it is especially important not to get drawn into partisan debates, as society might rightfully begin to question their motivations.

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