Today the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on the Obama administration’s response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on 9/11 last year. Although the hearing is aimed at investigating whether the administration tried to cover up the events of that night, a perfectly legitimate topic, it is just the latest indication that the Benghazi attack has become a strategic blunder for the United States.
It didn’t have to be this way. In fact, objectively speaking the aftermath of the Benghazi attack should have been a strategic boon to America’s war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. A combination of partisan politics and policy disagreements have unquestionably turned it into a blunder; one that was conceived of and produced in Washington, DC.
The attack first and foremost was a tragedy, given the loss of innocent lives that are so often the byproduct of violent misguided ideologies from al-Qaeda and Christian Identity to revolutionary Communists and Aum Shinrikyo. The attack was also an affront to peace-loving people everywhere who send diplomats abroad to ensure interstate war is conducted solely through other means.
But that the attack occurred at all was not that surprising. Sadly, America’s diplomatic and other outposts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa have all too often been the target of terrorist attacks in the last half century. The consulate in Benghazi seemed particularly vulnerable given its location in a country that had essentially disintegrated into one controlled by feuding local war loads.
What happened in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was nothing short of extraordinary, however. Specifically, tens of thousands of Libyans took to the streets in Benghazi to protest the killings of the U.S. Ambassador, seizing the headquarters of radical militant groups and turning them over to the Libyan national army. Many of the estimated 30,000 protesters held up signs reading: “We want justice for Chris,” “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.”
To appreciate how revolutionary this was consider how many reacted to the events eleven years prior when al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon killed an estimated 3,000 people mainly Americans and overwhelming civilians. While almost all political leaders condemned the attacks, and in a few cases like Iran the general public held open vigils for the victims, the Arab street’s reaction was largely indifferent intermixed with some who openly danced in the streets. Meanwhile, especially during the first few years of the Global War on Terrorism, Osama bin Laden became fairly popular in the Arab world, with many seeing him as something of a freedom fighter given his defiance of American hegemon.
Yet eleven years later the killing of four American diplomats and marines had led 30,000 Arabs to take to the streets to protest and actively dispose of those they held responsible. To be sure, this reaction was limited to the Libyan people themselves. Even still, this is highly significant given the fact that, according to al-Qaeda documents captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007, eastern Libyans constituted nearly 20 percent of the foreigners who had traveled to Iraq to wage Jihad against the U.S. and coalition forces. That was around double of any other Arab country when calculated on a per capita basis. This remarkable turnaround in eastern Libya’s opinion of the U.S. contrasts sharply with bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s rapidly diminished favorability throughout the Islamic world.
Especially since U.S. drones and special forces having decimated al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out any sizeable attack on the American homeland, the so-called global war on terrorism is essentially a battle of ideas within the (primarily Arab) Muslim world. With the obvious exception of Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Libyans pouring into the streets of Benghazi in support of a U.S. ambassador was the most symbolically powerful rebuke of al-Qaeda and its ideology to date. In the larger scheme of things it was far more important in this struggle than any drone strike or military action the U.S. could take.
And yet this entire story was absent from the U.S. public discourse on the attack, which quickly disintegrated into bitter partisan attacks over politics and policy disagreements. This began in the hours after the attack when a presidential candidate tried to exploit the attacks to salvage his hopeless campaign. In the months since, political motives have made common cause with those attempting to discredit President Obama’s light footprint approach to prosecuting what used to be called the global war on terror.
Although impassioned investigations aimed at identifying ways to improve embassy security would be most welcome, neither side of the political aisle has done much in this department. Instead, the endless partisan and emotional hearings and investigations have made scant effort to hide that their aim is to heap more blame on the president, his administration, and his policies on the one hand, or to counter the perception that these individuals or policies were in any way responsible.
The result is that Benghazi has become a strategic blunder for the United States which will have repercussions for years to come. As I noted a couple of years ago, one of the most difficult counterterrorism issues facing a U.S. president today is trying to find a way to wind down the war on terrorism in a way that is politically acceptable. As a growing body of research and investigative journalism has documented, the U.S. built a huge edifice to prosecute the war, and in turn stakeholders with invested interests in the status quo. Plain and simply al-Qaeda cannot in anyway justify such a sizeable operation and maintaining it is entirely counterproductive to fighting terrorism. It also distracts from much more important interests the U.S. has at home and elsewhere in the world, most notably in Asia.
Yet politically this task was always going to be difficult given the high likelihood that small level terrorist attacks would persist for some time during the transition away from the war on terrorism, and the certainty that domestic opponents of the president would ruthlessly exploit these attacks for their political advantage. The response to the Benghazi attacks serves as an all too real demonstration of the political perils that await a president seeking to follow the national interest. None are likely to undertake it in the near future.
The great irony is that this fits in perfectly with bin Laden’s vision. As he marveled in 2004:
“[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies. This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers as we alongside the Mujahedin bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. All Praise is due to Allah. So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”