Benghazi 2012 and Tehran 1979: Lessons from the Fog of War

One of the more heated exchanges in this week's presidential debate was over the September 11 (2012) attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Mitt Romney maintained that President Obama "failed" on two fronts: to take the necessary security measures to protect the employees in what was not that long ago an active war zone, and to properly assess the nature of the attack and its cause (whether it was a pre-planned terrorist act or a result of spontaneous rage over an anti-Islamic YouTube video). Since the incident, reports have emerged detailing what security measures were taken prior to the night of the attack and whether they were sufficient. In the coming weeks, I am sure we will hear more about what could have or should have been done.

What I find more pressing, however, is the furor over the second issue: was the act the result of a meticulously planned terrorist attack against the U.S., as some argue? This is the heart of Romney's indictment. But is it fair? Can we expect a president to reasonably know, within hours or days of such an event, who the perpetuators were and what motivated them? The "fog of war", as we have heard these last few weeks, leaves such assessments difficult, if not impossible, to make in short order. To better illustrate the challenges a sitting president faces in such situations, we can look back to another, more infamous incident involving an attack on a U.S. embassy in the Middle East.

On November 4 of 1979, what was described as a "groups of militant students" charged the U.S. embassy in Tehran, scaled its walls, overrunning the nominal security forces in place, and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Like Libya in 2012, Iran in 1979 was caught up in post-revolutionary fervor. The new government was not fully in place, and the nation had yet to determine its own political identity. In the streets of Tehran and other major Iranian cities, supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini mingled and marched with secular intellectuals, leftists, and moderate Islamists. Although President Jimmy Carter knew who had effective control of the country (Khomeini), what was unknown to the Americans and most Iranians outside of Khomeini's inner circle was how that control would play out in the form of governance and, most importantly, diplomacy. The American perspective was that Khomeini and his allies held particular grievances against the U.S., but that cooler heads would prevail once the "fog of revolutionary war" had lifted and normal diplomatic relations would resume. Therefore, when news of the hostage-taking first reach the Carter Administration, the assumption was that the students were acting independently, that this was not a government-sanctioned or organized event. It only made sense, based on what was known (or, more accurately, on how little was known).

Eventually, as the hostage crisis dragged on, it became evident that the new regime would use it as a political weapon against the U.S., and the question of whether Khomeini pre-planned the whole episode became irrelevant because, 444 days later, he "owned" it. Hostage-taking and embassy-invading became tools of the trade in the new Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, it was not until years later that the true story emerged: the students cooked up the plan on their own, found encouragement and moral support from a cleric close to Khomeini, who then co-opted the attack and took ownership of it after initially "condemning" the students for their purported violation of diplomatic protocol.

The lesson from 1979? That in the aftermath of great civil unrest and revolution (the "fog"), we cannot expect to know who is doing what, and what may appear to be obvious and identifiable can become merely a pretense for something else. In the days, weeks, and months following the 1979 hostage crisis, the Carter Administration remained in the dark as to the true nature of what happened on November 4. This is worth remembering when we assess what took place in Benghazi 33 years later.