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Sophocles in Benghazi

Susan Rice and James Clapper are minor, insignificant figures, but ones who both tested nemesis one too many times. The former helped dream up the Libyan intervention, along with Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton (would that Hillary could now take back that crude boast, “We came, we saw, Gaddafi died”). Rice was eager that her previous behind-the-scenes labors should receive due credit on the eve of the exit of Secretary Clinton. She got her chance with Libya, played it to the full, and sadly made a fool of herself. She could have fairly summed up what the administration did not know, and done so perhaps once or twice on television. But perhaps her hubris drove her to spin an elaborate scenario of protestors mad over an uncouth video -- and not once, but emphatically five times on a single Sunday. If an investigation follows, she will probably identify those who provided her with such narratives that simply could not be true, and were known to be untrue at the time.

James Clapper, in terms of Washington rules, had gotten away with quite a lot. He was a Bush appointee promoted by the new administration, after making the necessary adjustments that such a transformation requires. He seemed strangely clueless on television when told of a foiled London terrorist operation. He almost alone claimed that Gaddafi would not fall. He even more singularly assured us that the Muslim Brotherhood was secular. And he somehow trumped all of that by promulgating the Muslim anger over a video narrative -- despite a drone video sending back real-time film of a terrorist attack. How he had so far avoided nemesis is a mystery, but it is no mystery that he will no longer.

David Petraeus is in a classically tragic role -- the sole character who combined sterling intelligence and military expertise that would seem to have been critical in responding to just this sort of terrorist assault.  At first report, the only uplifting element of the entire debacle seems to have been incomplete reports of some CIA and private contractor help sent to the consulate, and then a tardy CIA posse dispatched to the annex. But those facts are lost amid rumors and leaks that the intelligence community is also culpable (why would a private contractor have to disobey CIA orders in order to attempt to save an ambassador?) -- both in not predicting the danger (or not listening to those who did) and in not addressing the attack at the embassy properly, and in not publicly providing answers to public concern.

Of course, Petraeus also must have known when he selflessly took the job that he was descending from Olympus to assume control of a bureau infamous for tarnishing the reputations of almost all who had tried to harness it -- an agency whose failures surface in the media, but whose successes usually remain classified, and whose director during scandal and catastrophe is usually the first to be blamed and last to be exonerated. In a fair world, perhaps Petraeus, not Martin Dempsey, should have been chairman of the Joint Chiefs, given his salvation of Iraq. Instead, he was dispatched to a difficult mission in Afghanistan and asked to restore calm, but without a desperate George W. Bush as his commander in chief, willing to wage all to reclaim a nearly lost war. From what little we know so far, Petraeus was not necessarily culpable for providing too little security or sending too little help when the consulate was attacked, but from deliberate leaks a narrative seems to be emerging that he should be held culpable for something. Yet in a larger sense, we know that principled people who go to work for this administration often do not end up well -- and so wonder to what degree Petraeus himself is in a position to concede that dilemma, and the consequences to come when the final act of the tragedy of Libya will be at last fully aired.