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The American heroes who died in Benghazi deserve better

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    Sept. 14, 2012: Carry teams move flag draped transfer cases of the remains of the four Americans killed this week in Benghazi, Libya, from a transport plane during the Transfer of Remains Ceremony, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP)

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    FILE: April 11, 2011: U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, center, speaks to Council member for Misrata Suleiman Fortia, right, at the Tibesty Hotel in Benghazi, Libya. (AP)

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When the dust dies down from the fruitless finger pointing about the tragedy in Benghazi, a number of important questions will remain that have nothing to do with accountability. As General Robert E. Lee noted, “We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.” 

We need to identify our interests in Libya and reasonable expectations for relations with that troubled country and others like it. We need to set a clear policy that balances a desire minimize our footprint with the security of our interests. We need to educate, train, and organize our security professionals to respond to similar operational surprises in the future.

As our center noted over a year ago in "Libya: Avoiding Catastrophic Success," the first step for our professionals must be to clarify our interests and project a reasonable future without a policy of wishful thinking. This requires a deeper understanding of local relationships and dynamics.

Once the professionals have a better understanding, they can enhance the constraints and limitations provided to policy makers, make feasible recommendations, and slam the door on the “bright idea fairy.” Our goal should be to increase our local influence, protect our stated interests, and shape the strategic environment. The questions surrounding Benghazi should start by asking for a justification for the type of presence we had on the ground and its objectives.

Given that we will make mistakes in a complex, uncertain world, we need to get very good at reacting to surprises.  That means that we must examine the old command and control lines for boundaries where they occur and are made worse.

Sometimes our enhanced understanding will indicate that a large security presence can undermine our partners, or our strategic message. We must still have the means to secure our personnel and interests, but by understanding the roots of local conflict and relationships we can find ways to accomplish the appropriate balance. We will get this balance wrong from time to time, with tragic consequences. 

The true danger we face now is the belief that perfection is possible.  That belief creates an environment in which no risk is politically acceptable. That would not be the course advocated by the heroes of Benghazi, who risked their lives time and again for the honor of our nation.

While no politician wants to be the one who denies a security request, the professionals can always provide another solution by reshaping the approach and timeline. Both must take some risk for us to achieve our objectives, and provide detailed pre-approved plans to mitigate the risks and react to possible contingencies. During a crisis, we must aggressively push initiative and decision-making lower down the chain of command and closer to the folks with knowledge of the situation on the ground. In the best case, our responses at higher echelons will become rehearsed battle drills with pre-established political approvals.

Given that we will make mistakes in a complex, uncertain world, we need to get very good at reacting to surprises.  That means that we must examine the old command and control lines for boundaries where they occur and are made worse. In Somalia in 1993, members of the United Somali Congress, when informed that their proposed meeting site was outside the UN sector, told us that “we do not draw our boundaries where you draw yours.” 

Many of our challenges, like the tragedy in Benghazi, cross legal, operational and geographic boundaries we have established for departments, agencies, and commands. We need to establish interagency education and training. A broad education provides the context and imagination that are the best defense against surprise. 

We need to institutionalize the ability to rapidly transfer authorities, capabilities, and capacity between commands, services, departments, agencies, and even non-governmental organizations for a more agile and comprehensive approach to national security. We cannot expect security structures and policy to be any less dynamic than the world.  We must build with evolution in mind. Once flexible processes are formalized, we eliminate the finger-pointing and bickering that comes from politically convenient, vague informality.

We need to honor our heroes by marching towards the sound of the cannons and creating heroic change that will address the real issues in play. 

We can examine the policy implications of transitioning environments like Libya. We can improve our ability to provide a professional staff and process that can overcome operational uncertainty and bureaucratic friction, encouraging elected and appointed policy makers to remain focused on the political. To change a strategic and operational culture is almost impossible, but it is a goal worthy of the sacrifices that have been made by our quiet professionals.

Lt. Col (Ret) David E.A. Johnson, USA, a 1984 graduate of West Point, former active-duty Special Forces Officer and Army Strategist, is currently the executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C.  The author’s opinions do not necessarily reflect the policy of any organization with which he is affiliated.