The Buck Stops Where? America’s Problem with Blame

Fresh off of a successful hospital recovery, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat before her peers and her country to place the blame of Benghazi on her heavily padded shoulders. Watching the coverage from the privacy of my own home, my neighbours probably assumed I was preparing my frustrated Super Bowl reactions rather than watching a Senate hearing.

Image courtesy of Bob Casey, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Bob Casey, © 2013, some rights reserved.

What received the most attention wasn’t her admission of guilt and her declaration of clear oversight by the State Department, but rather her less guarded moments when remembering the caskets of the fallen diplomats coming back to the US. Republican, Democrat or otherwise undecided or uninterested, it would be strange if you didn’t see the viral explosion of #whatdifferencedoesitmake on twitter. “Indeed”, I said. What difference does it actually make? Sure, she said this in response to a condemning remark by Republican Senator Ron Johnson about the motives behind the attack, but the phrase stuck with me.

Clinton’s catchphrase of the night set in motion a string of thoughts that I felt motivated enough to write about. I therefore wanted to bring back the unpleasant subject of Abu Ghraib. The pictures from that detention centre went viral around the world when the term ‘viral’ was associated with disease and not the pregnancy announcements of Beyonce or Kim Kardashian. The pictures seen ‘round the world’ spread a wildfire of blame and condemnation to those involved. Indeed, Lynndie England and eleven of her peers were dishonourably discharged and some served a prison sentence. Brigadier General Janis Karpinksi who was in charge of the prison, was demoted to Colonel. But in lieu of Secretary Clinton’s admission of guilt, I wondered, what difference did the hearing make to the accountability of state officials?

In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld spoke in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee and said, “In recent days there has been a good deal of discussion about who bears responsibility for the terrible activities that took place at Abu Ghraib. These events occurred on my watch. As Secretary of Defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility.”[1]

Senator Robert C. Byrd retorted, “Mr. Secretary, it was President Truman who was said to have displayed the famous sign on his desk: The buck stops here. I served with President Truman. He was an honorable man. He did not shirk his responsibility. I see a very different pattern in this administration. I see arrogance and a disdain for Congress. I see misplaced bravado and an unwillingness to admit mistakes. I see finger-pointing and excuses.”

 In both scandals, it was said that a systematic breakdown was to blame and it calls into question the hierarchy for accountability. Rumsfeld requested to step down… twice, and his request was denied both times. Clinton is stepping down regardless of the outcome of the hearings so really the question that is brought about is who actually should take responsibility?

In both cases, there was an alarming cry for their removal but ultimately the review boards handling the case found other, lower-level officials to blame and were subsequently removed from their positions or demoted.

For Clinton, the official inquiry into the Benghazi attack indicated that the State Department had few resources to handle an attack of that magnitude. They revealed that there were significant “leadership and management” deficiencies as well but that Clinton herself was not to blame. It was found in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib that the incidents were not conducted by just some “bad apples”, but rather a very loose interpretation of what is now known as the Torture Memos: a set of legal memoranda drafted by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo that justified the use of various torture methods on enemy combatants.

What occurred in both of these famous instances is a clear message that in various US Departments, oversight and incoherency are running rampant, and it does not come down to party lines. Although expected to take full blame for what happened in Benghazi and Abu Ghraib, it is almost laughable now that any head official should actually be removed from their position, like some of their opponents suggest, following a scandal. Hot air or not, someone was put at fault despite other actors and judgements involved. If we want to move on from these scandals and be able to learn from them, I should hope greater accountability would result and the head of the department would actually be removed from their position. Republican or democrat, male or female, diplomatic or military, Americans have hard time holding state officials accountable for their role at the helm. If the captain is supposed to go down with the ship… really in the wake of these events, #whatdifferencedoesitmake?