Politics & Policy

Heinlein’s Razor in Benghazi

It was both breathtaking incompetence and political malfeasance.

In a 1941 novella called Logic of Empire, the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein has one character say to another, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” I was supposed to have read the story in a freshman lit class, which I decided was an unreasonable demand on my time. But Wikipedia tells me that the story is ostensibly about indentured servitude on Venus — and that it’s really about how a bunch of flawed, self-interested individuals with no particular malice unwittingly conspire (if you’ll indulge the contradiction in terms) in a great evil.

The quote is thus a pithy encapsulation of the theme, and paraphrases of it — most notably “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” — have entered the lexicon as “Heinlein’s razor.”

Heinlein’s razor is surely on the minds of some who watched the Benghazi hearing in the House on Wednesday, at which America’s former top diplomat in Libya, Gregory Hicks, gave a disturbing insider’s account of the September 11, 2012, attacks, as well as of the parade of mistakes that constituted their prologue and aftermath. So what does Hicks’s testimony, as well as that of Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, respectively senior counterterror and security officials in the State Department, tell us about the mix of incompetence and malfeasance that led to the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath?

We knew already that a number of decisions taken before September 11 made the eventual attack both likelier to occur and likelier to succeed. The whistleblowers made clear that those decisions were either made or improperly delegated by people at the highest levels. Specifically, Wednesday’s testimony suggests that, although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had ordered Ambassador Chris Stevens to Benghazi on that day in part to work on the transformation of the U.S. facilities there into a permanent consulate, Clinton had decided (or allowed, against statute, the decision to be made for her) to leave a substandard security apparatus in place, and indeed had let security be reduced in the months before the attacks, even as security experts protested and reports of violence increased. This happened, according to the results of the Oversight Committee’s investigation, because the administration was in a great rush to “normalize” its presence in Libya, the better to portray it as a foreign-policy success story.

This would appear to be negligence of a particularly gross sort. Since the only other excuse offered by the administration’s defenders in Congress for the baldly inadequate security is budget constraints, and since no one actually involved in the decision-making process seems to take that excuse seriously, it’s hard to read these decisions as “difficult choices” that reasonable people could disagree on. These weren’t “close calls”; they were blown calls. One point here for incompetence. And yet there remains room for conspiracy, or at least the suggestion of it, in the revelation that the preemptive warnings from Nordstrom and others were minimized in the official after-action report on the attack, and that experts such as Thompson were not even consulted.

This brings to mind the cliché about Washington scandals: It’s not the crime that brings you down, but the cover-up. And it’s in the political aftermath of the attacks that we find things we can’t dismiss as mere stupidity. The most flagrant example comes from Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and fixer (and Bill’s lawyer during his impeachment), who instructed Hicks to break State Department protocol and refuse to talk to Representative Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) without State lawyers present, and who chewed Hicks out when he said lawyers were excluded from one meeting because they lacked security clearance. That’s pure political damage control that, depending on whether ethical or legal boundaries were transgressed, could rise to the level of cover-up.

More insidious, and more nebulous, than this is the administration’s increasingly strained and pathetic effort to blame the deaths of four Americans on a YouTube video. Here Hicks’s testimony is unequivocal and damning. The video “was a non-event in Libya,” he said, and there was no report from Tripoli, either during the attack or after it, that indicated it might have been a “spontaneous” demonstration gone awry, rather than a jihadist attack. This is why Susan Rice’s tour of shame on the Sunday shows “shocked” and “embarrassed” Hicks, who asked Clinton’s Near East deputy why Rice would say such things and was promptly told to discontinue that line of questioning.

Since we still don’t know the administration’s decision-making process on post-Benghazi talking points — in part because the trail of e-mails has not been made public — we can’t say definitively how much forethought there was in the way they misrepresented reality. It is possible that there was no overarching “plan” to lie, no marching orders, no formal cover-up. It could well be that members of the administration just panicked and did whatever they could to avoid “al-Qaeda-backed attack kills Americans” headlines in the middle of a presidential campaign.

Some of the people involved may not have even known they were lying, per se. They might have merely reasoned themselves into believing the video was the cause. Such a belief would certainly soothe the kind of mind that thinks all anti-American Islamic terrorism is “blowback” or “chickens come home to roost.” Or they could have been somewhere between, engaging in classic political bull, exploiting the possibility that the video explanation might be true to distract from the far greater likelihood that it wasn’t.

An administration isn’t a hive mind, it’s a crowd — and in a crisis, frequently a mob. So it’s likely that there was some of all this in the administration’s reaction to Benghazi, or that, à la The Logic of Empire, what started as a number of individuals trying to cover their own rear ends, or Madam Secretary’s, or Candidate Obama’s, morphed into official policy — and a great evil.

A probably apocryphal story is told of the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell’s wit. When he emerged from the delivery room where his wife had just given birth, a well-wisher asked Russell, “Is it a boy or a girl?” To which Russell replied, “Yes.”

Conservative commentator Ken Gardner borrows a page from Russell in what is perhaps the best 140-character summary of what we’ve learned about Benghazi so far: “Was the Benghazi attack and its aftermath the result of incompetence or a dishonest coverup with media complicity? Yes. It was.”

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.


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