President Barack Obama’s political opponents are trying once again to manufacture a scandal out of the tragic deaths of four American government personnel at a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, last September. Among those killed was the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. The current political and media feeding frenzy surrounding the Benghazi attacks is no more than a parsing of interagency debates on postattack talking points, and it is based on what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called “cartoonish” views of U.S. military capabilities.
This Washington convulsion may serve the political interests of President Obama’s domestic opponents, but it obscures two far more important issues: the deterioration of the overall situation in Libya, and the longer-term challenge the United States faces of managing security risks when conducting diplomacy in insecure locations. The mindless political debate over Obama administration talking points from last fall harms efforts to come to grips with both of these issues and shows how superficial our debates on national security have become.
Militias and the deteriorating security situation
The security situation in Libya is getting worse, not better. In the last month alone, car bombs have hit the French embassy in Tripoli and a hospital in Benghazi. Earlier this year unknown assailants attacked five British activists near the Egyptian border, and U.S. and European governments have warned of “imminent” threats in Libya.
Due to the deteriorating situation, a few days ago the U.S. military put its forces in Europe on a heightened state of alert. Also in the past week, the United States and Britain withdrew some of their diplomatic staff from Libya due to the increased threats there. Clearly, the security situation inside Libya—and what the United States and other countries can do to help Libya stop the downward spiral—should be the focus of the debate.
This deterioration is due in large part to the continued power that militias wield in Libya. By laying siege to the foreign and justice ministries in Tripoli and attacking those who protested their actions, the militias forced the government to pass a draconian “political isolation law.” What’s more, militias continue to run their own prisons—and continue to detain Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the highest-ranking survivor of the Qaddafi regime, who is wanted for crimes against humanity. The Libyan government’s capitulation to brazen coercion by militias and their political allies severely undermines its halting efforts to build national-level security services and establish the rule of law in Libya.
In short, these groups continue to sow instability throughout the country by preventing the government from establishing credible security institutions and the rule of law. Worse, they have openly used the threat of violence to force a democratically elected government to bend to their wishes, and they have employed violence against those with whom they disagreed. This lack of stability and security also gives violent Islamist extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, which attacked the Benghazi facility last September, freedom of movement and action. It also facilitates the spread of weapons and militants from and through Libya, as was apparently the case in the January 2013 Algerian gas-facility attack.
The United States, its partners, and international institutions could help rectify this situation by providing training, equipment, and other forms of security assistance to the Libyan government. This support could help the government consolidate its security sector and establish public order and the rule of law. However, the zero-risk mentality produced by the scandal mongering currently dominating the debate is likely to prevent any new security-sector reform initiatives in Washington. The United States and its partners are now stuck in a vicious circle: They cannot offer requisite levels of assistance to the Libyan government because they are unwilling to risk the poor security situation, and the poor security situation is not likely to improve without the requisite level of international help.
Managing diplomatic risk in insecure locations
More broadly, the furor over the Benghazi attack talking points could do severe damage to U.S. national security and diplomatic efforts. For several decades the United States has been hampering its diplomats’ ability to shape and influence the situations in countries that are vital to U.S. interests by imposing increasingly rigid security restrictions. Numerous independent assessments have noted the negative impact these measures have had on the State Department’s ability to advance its mission.
In 2009 the Government Accountability Office warned that security procedures:
… for State’s diplomatic corps [have], at times, been in tension with State’s diplomatic mission. For example, Diplomatic Security has established strict policies concerning access to U.S. facilities that usually include personal and vehicle screening. Some public affairs officials—whose job it is to foster relations with host country nationals—have expressed concerns that the security measures discourage visitors from attending U.S. embassy events or exhibits. In addition, the new embassies and consulates, with their high walls, deep setback, and strict screening procedures, have evoked the nickname, “Fortress America.”
The effort to turn the Benghazi attack into a political albatross for current and former Obama administration officials has done and will do significant damage to American diplomatic efforts in hostile environments. Policymakers may become even more reluctant to take risks with diplomatic personnel in these situations for fear of a political boomerang if something goes wrong.
As a result, the default policy may be to retrench behind the walls of so-called fortress embassies, take few if any risks with nonmilitary personnel, and surrender potential American influence on the ground in dangerous parts of the world. By flogging the phantom scandal of Benghazi, Obama administration critics who demand more direct intervention in Syria ironically are undermining their own argument. And if something goes wrong and Americans die, the administration will likely be rewarded with scandalmongering by advocates of the very policy that put American personnel at risk in the first place. The State Department’s Accountability Review Board, convened in the event of loss of life or destruction of property at U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad, recommended the administration “work more rigorously and adeptly to address” the security challenges inherent in diplomacy and to discuss its recommendations. Instead, congressional investigators have chosen to impugn the integrity of the board’s leaders, with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) accusing respected former diplomat Thomas Pickering of having “heard what the administration wanted to hear” in his investigation. In addition, they focused their attention on postattack debates and unrealistic rescue scenarios. None of these approaches help stimulate a debate on the proper level of risk that diplomats should assume, sending instead the implicit message that the answer should be none at all.
The hue and cry over Benghazi simply detracts from the two fundamental issues going forward: the level of acceptable risk for American diplomats in dangerous environments and the ongoing deterioration of security in Libya. It will be impossible for the Obama administration—or any administration that comes after it—to make rational decisions on the latter without a shared consensus on the former. The politicization of Benghazi accomplishes nothing except to make the default acceptable level of risk for American personnel abroad zero. However defensible such a posture may be in political terms, it does not allow the United States to exercise sufficient influence abroad to deal with emerging security threats and address pressing foreign policy problems.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center.