WASHINGTON -- For the last year, the most politically contentious foreign policy dispute in America has been over the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in the murderous bazaar of Benghazi in the desert of North Africa.
The Obama administration has been pilloried by the Republicans, who damned the president and particularly former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with such vehemence you would think the two of them had murdered the four men in Libya themselves. The Republicans averred vociferously that (1) al-Qaida had launched the 2012 attack that burned down the consulate compound, and (2) that Washington had refused -- criminally -- to send U.S. troops to relieve the hours-long siege.
Meanwhile, the administration was burdened by the fact that then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had dutifully gone on television the Sunday after the attack, saying that (1) the attacks were made by roving free agents of anti-American militias and not al-Qaida, and (2) they had been heavily inspired by a vulgar anti-Muhammad video some then-unnamed nutter in California had made. The video had been been broadcast that very day from an ultra-conservative satellite TV station in Cairo, including to nearby Benghazi.
I wrote at the time: "But the story of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on Sept. 11 is more than a tale told by madmen. It rings with the singular mourning that has swept unusual portions of the world following this fine young man's death. It is also a tale filled with many lessons, which we SAY, oh yes, we are certainly going to learn this time."
But now, more than a year after the tragedy, it seems that we may have arrived at some genuine, and irrefutable, truths in this important matter.
On Sunday, The New York Times printed a comprehensive, no-nonsense article beginning on the front page under the headline: "Deadly Mix in Benghazi: False Allies, Crude Video -- Interviews Show Militia and Insults to Islam Fed Attack -- No Qaeda Link Seen." The author is David D. Kirkpatrick, one of the best journalists we have, and the article was the result of "months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context."
The article is fascinating -- and, I believe, conclusive, reminding us that when you need the truth about foreign affairs, you'd better depend upon some good newspaper reporting and not your government, your police and FBI or your embassies.
From these hundreds of in-depth interviews, the Times concluded that: (1) al-Qaida had little, if any part in the attacks, which were largely spontaneous and the result of rivalry between gangs or uncontrolled "militias" that formed in the wake of President Muammar Gadhafi's overthrow and murder, and (2) the attacks were, indeed, in great part inspired by the weird Muhammad video, which had not the least importance in the United States.
Still not fully addressed, for my thinking, was the question of why Ambassador Stevens was IN Benghazi at all on that commemorative day of Sept. 11, which brings out all the barely repressed anti-Americanism of Arab mobs. (The American Embassy in Cairo had been viciously attacked that very morning.) Add to that the Muhammad video and the fact that the embassy officers were innocently unaware of its broadcast into Libya, and you have a hellish situation ready to catch fire.
Something else comes out in the Times article that is of grave curiosity. The Republicans hammered home the accusation that no American troops were alerted to defend the consulate in time -- by sending military from Spain, for instance.
But as Kirkpatrick writes: "The Americans had another reason to feel secure: the team of at least 20 people from the Central Intelligence Agency operating out of an unmarked Benghazi compound known as 'the Annex' that was about a half-mile southeast of the mission. Some were highly skilled commandos. 'I knew the backup guys at the Annex, who were quite heavily trained and equipped,' said an Obama administration official who visited in the months before the attack."
In short, far from needing troops from Spain, they had well-armed and trained commandos a half-mile from the doomed consulate! So the final questions become far different from the ones that have been bandied around with such destructive intent and result this last year:
-- Why didn't the commandos defend the consulate? Because no one had correctly analyzed the extreme danger of the militias in Benghazi and because the ambassador was so, yes, naive about the situation.
-- Why was Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi that day? He seemed to have no serious reason to be in what was by all accounts a war zone on Sept. 11. Indeed, at the end of the day, he jovially had tea with a Turkish diplomat. He was still in the consulate when the attacks began about 9:30 that night. On the anniversary of Sept. 11. Quite incredible!
The only real lapse in American diplomacy, then, was the innocence of both diplomats and the CIA on the ground about these tormented realities. As happens so often in the Middle East, even putative "friends" can turn if there is a mob and virtually any perceived insult.
The Times report shows that the administration's and Ambassador Rice's early analyses were more right than wrong. But the deeper aspects of culture still seem to elude, and thus doom, many of our very best diplomats and policy makers.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)