Editor's Note: Nicholas Burns is GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist. He writes a bimonthly column on the international issues that shape our world.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Benghazi controversy’s return to Washington’s raging partisan wars continues to portray our political culture at its worst.
So many charges have been traded, particularly during the last week, that the average citizen might require a scorecard just to keep up with the rancorous debate in Congressional hearing rooms as well as on Fox, MSNBC and the blogo-twittersphere.
By my count, there are at least three myths that have grown up around the terrible events in Libya on Sept. 11 of last autumn that left Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty dead in a calculated and brutal terrorist attack.
Myth One: The Obama administration conspired from the first hours of the attack to cover up for political advantage during the election campaign what was clearly an act of terrorism against our country.
After listening to this charge for nine months now, I see confusion, rather than cover-up, as the most accurate way to describe what happened inside the administration in the days following the attack.
Perhaps because I’ve served at the State Department and White House as well as at American diplomatic posts in the Middle East, I understand and sympathize with how difficult it often is to make sense of complicated events overseas when we have at best an incomplete understanding of what happened. This is particularly true of Benghazi.
In the hours after Washington learned of the initial attack, officials at State and the White House situation room were peering through a thick fog of conflicting reports of exactly what had gone wrong.
It makes sense to me why officials on duty would have debated whether it was a mob or terrorist group responsible. A number of our embassies in the Arab world that week faced significant mob attacks and demonstrations over the hateful anti-Muslim video of a California man.
As it became clear in following days that a terrorist group had deliberately attacked our Benghazi outpost, the administration struggled to decide what and how much to say. Some in the media and Congress have alleged that the frequent changes to talking points betray a White House intent on hiding or distorting facts to mislead the public.
That is a serious but ultimately unconvincing charge. When I was State Department spokesman in the Clinton administration, we would often work through countless iterations of talking points on complex issues to take account of the emergence of new facts and differing interpretations inside the government itself. The same was true when I served in the George W. Bush administration.
In fact, the many emails released by the White House this week paint a picture of an administration that was ragged, contradictory and ineffective in its public statements. It was clearly not its finest hour. But it does not appear to be the deception that the administration’s most vociferous critics allege.
Some in the media have been cavalier and grossly irresponsible in unfairly maligning the reputation of Ambassador Victoria Nuland, one of our very finest diplomats, based on partial leaks of emails. As David Brooks argued so convincingly in The New York Times this week, making her a scapegoat is just plain wrong.
Myth Two: Benghazi and its aftermath showcase an administration that lacks the backbone to support our people overseas in volatile places like the Middle East.
Some Republicans have charged Democrats as insufficiently martial and tough-minded in defense of Americans against terrorists and other enemies of our country.
A more careful, considered view shows this to be well wide of the mark. President Obama called this “an act of terror” the day after the attacks. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took full public responsibility for what went wrong. And this is, after all, the administration that has pursued terrorists relentlessly on the Afghan-Pakistan border, in Yemen and Somalia and throughout the turbulent Middle East.
There are legitimate questions to ask about the effectiveness of US policy in Syria, Bahrain and other countries engulfed by the Arab revolutions. But, those do not amount to the charge of timidity that some politicians and commentators allege in blanket indictments of President Obama’s leadership.
Myth Three: Some administration supporters continue to maintain that the White House and State did the best they could and that the Benghazi furor is simply a partisan right-wing attack against Hilary Clinton and the Democratic party ahead of the next election cycle.
There is no question that politics is playing a big role in the Benghazi debate. But that does not mean congressional leaders, Republicans included, should not continue to ask tough questions and demand assurances that the State Department will be much better prepared to protect our diplomats in the future.
Sept. 11, 2012 was a disastrous day for our country. We lost four distinguished public servants. Chris Stevens was the first American ambassador killed on active duty in more than 30 years. We need to learn the many lessons outlined in the hard-hitting report of the official Accountability Review Board led by two experienced, fair-minded and non-partisan leaders, Ambassador Tom Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen.
They pointed to serious lapses of leadership, management and accountability at the State Department itself. Benghazi, like all terrorist attacks, was a wake-up call. It is vital now that the State Department continue its efforts to do everything possible to protect our diplomats overseas.
That is the real outrage of our misplaced, shrill and mean-spirited debate about Benghazi.
The most important issue that should be at the top of the agenda — full funding for embassy security to protect our men and women of the State Department — is being forgotten.
If Congress really wants to account for the Benghazi tragedy, as President Obama suggested this week, it can start by restoring the $300 million it cut from the administration’s budget request to make our embassies and consulates more secure.
The media can ratchet back unfounded and irresponsible indictments of honest and hard-working public servants.
And the administration can renew its commitment that, together, we provide maximum support to our Foreign Service officers in the field so they can have a fair chance the next time terrorists target us in places like Benghazi.
Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.