On the night of September 11 and through the early hours of September 12, 2012, the U.S. consulate and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya were attacked. Four Americans—U.S. Ambassador Chris Stephens, Foreign Service Management Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Tyronne Woods and Glen Doherty—were tragically killed and ten others were wounded.
That night is now viewed as a national disaster. The Benghazi attack marked the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador was killed on active duty. Moreover, it crippled the Obama administration’s foreign policy in Libya, punctuated days of instability and anti-American protests across the Arab world, and dealt a painful blow to U.S. morale and security on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, however, the Benghazi tragedy did not end when the flames were extinguished and the bodies were brought home. Rather, like a bandage yanked from a festering wound, the attacks are a single event that have laid bare some of the ugliest, most difficult, and most unfortunate realities of U.S. politics and the U.S. government.
Today, more than three years since the attack, the mere word “Benghazi” has become a sensitive and highly politicized trigger for many Americans. Mental images of death, fire, and sadness are now colored and even soured by out-of-context clips and misquotations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yelling “What difference…does it make?,” the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s obvious political witch hunt, and numerous other examples of inflamed rhetoric and divisive reactions. This political smear campaign by some Republicans and the right wing media against President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and others is detestable. Such accusations of deliberate malpractice, calculated dishonesty, and nonchalance are as cynical and offensive as those that accuse President George W. Bush of lying about 9/11.
“Like a bandage yanked from a festering wound, the attacks are a single event that have laid bare some of the ugliest, most difficult, and most unfortunate realities of U.S. politics and the U.S. government.”
The Benghazi attack was hardly the only such tragedy to occur in the history of American foreign policy. In 2013, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security released a report that cataloged dozens of “significant attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel abroad” that took place between 1998 and 2012. While no U.S. ambassadors were killed, there were many attacks that targeted U.S. embassies and consulates. These include the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 291 people (including 12 Americans), the 2002 attack that killed 12 people (including a U.S. Marine) near the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and a 2006 car bomb explosion near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed two U.S. military personnel and a local embassy staffer.
These and other attacks around the globe—from China, to Greece, to Peru, to Yemen—clearly indicate that ensuring the safety and security of Americans abroad is a serious challenge. What they do not suggest, however, is that any single U.S. administration, commander in chief, secretary of state, or other official, is singularly culpable. The way in which Benghazi has been turned into a partisan smear campaign is not only unprecedented, but also irresponsible and factually inconsistent.
This is not to say the Obama administration’s response was entirely appropriate, effective, and void of political objectives. That the Benghazi attacks occurred only weeks before the 2012 election, in which President Obama’s re-election was at stake, undoubtedly influenced the administration’s response. Obama, Clinton, and Rice’s inconsistent remarks—both public and private—about the nature of the attacks further played into the idea and fueled outrage that the administration was staging a Benghazi cover-up for self-serving political purposes.
“These and other attacks around the globe—from China, to Greece, to Peru, to Yemen—clearly indicate that ensuring the safety and security of Americans abroad is a serious challenge. What they do not suggest, however, is the idea that any single U.S. administration, commander in chief, secretary of state, or other official, is singularly culpable.”
There is a huge difference, however, between the administration scrambling to get its messaging right in the “fog of war” with high political stakes involved, and accusing the administration of lying to the public. We will likely never know the exact extent to which the terrorist attack in Benghazi was caused by a spontaneous protest, and to what extent it was premeditated. At this point, it seems both options are plausible.
This frustrating inconclusiveness is less a reason to distrust the government’s motives and integrity, and more a reason to doubt its ability to do everything we imagine it can. It is no secret that in U.S. foreign policy, bureaucratic red tape and interagency competition have the potential to reduce overall effectiveness, muddle communication, and threaten security. The appropriate response to Benghazi is not to create more divisiveness within the government or to load disproportionate blame on top-level officials. Rather, we must recognize security risks will always be, for lack of a better phrase, the “cost of doing business” in dangerous and unstable parts of the world. With this in mind, national security in the age of global terrorism and non-state actors requires a much greater level of cooperation, constant vigilance, and streamlined communication than the U.S. government currently possesses.
Image: President Obama and Secretary Clinton honor the Benghazi attack victims at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base on September 14, 2012. (U.S. Department of State, Public Domain)
Edward Mahabir is an Intern at the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Cuba Program. He previously served as a Legislative Intern for U.S. Senator Angus S. King, Jr. of Maine. As a Program Intern at World Learning, he provided administrative support for the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where he double majored in history and eastern European studies, and minored in government. His honors thesis, “Imagery and Empire: Visual Representation and Political Authority in Imperial Russia, 1762–1917” was awarded the Dr. Samuel and Rose A. Bernstein Prize for Excellence in European History.