The September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, produced one of the loudest, longest and paradoxically least-understood political scandals in American history.
Democrat or Republican, Americans came to associate “Benghazi” with self-serving fabrications of the other party – and little else. But the impact of the US response to the attack on American foreign policy and domestic politics was profound. The fact that the American public is largely unaware of this, more than 10 years later, is a direct reflection of its political sensitivity.
Many details of the attack on the US diplomatic mission and CIA compound are still missing, or unknown. But the professional consensus has been that the attack was the work of Al Qaeda proxies, with the probable knowledge of then Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri.
The fact that, just before the attack, Al Zawahiri referenced the US killing of his Libyan No 2 several months before, and that radicals in Egypt connected to Al Zawahiri distributed dubbed clips of a US-made anti-Muslim hate video several days before the attack, and planned the protests at the US embassy in Cairo, suggests an operation that started and ended beyond Benghazi.
The outcome of the Benghazi attack provides clues as to a motive: it pushed Libya’s unsteady transition into a nosedive, feeding instability in numerous countries around it. The city in which Libya’s 2011 revolution began, and which the US sought to save from Muammar Qaddafi’s wrath, was left to Al Qaeda and ISIS.
In the US, two flawed partisan narratives emerged to explain what happened in Benghazi. Each was built to attack or deflect the other and had little to do with clarity, per se. With the 2012 presidential election weeks away, the Obama administration elevated the role of an incendiary video to downplay any Al Qaeda link, which, along with a failing surge in Afghanistan, were perceived to be real political liabilities. These liabilities were ironically exacerbated by the administration’s killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, which created the potential for Republicans to use any subsequent Al Qaeda attack to undermine a significant campaign talking point.
With polls indicating that Americans were increasingly sceptical of the White House’s Benghazi explanations, Republicans used that doubt to feed a raft of unrelated, baseless attacks, then amplified by traditional and social media. Senior Obama administration officials have said they believed Benghazi would be forgotten after the election, but it seems they bet the political futures of then secretary of state, and presumed future Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton – along with then UN ambassador Susan Rice (whom the Republicans accused of fabricating the original Benghazi talking points) on that assumption.
The term Benghazi Effect emerged within Washington to describe an exaggerated risk aversion that reflexively followed the Benghazi attack, and deepened over time as US officials at home and abroad feared the “wrong” decision might spark another political melee. The manifestations went far beyond Libya. Several former US officials described how, after Benghazi, “the US was running increasingly blind, as it drew down assets across the region”. US President Barack Obama cited Libya – not Benghazi – as a factor in his reluctance to intervene further in Syria, but Benghazi became the marker for that failure, at a critical moment. In Yemen, where the US continued to focus on drone warfare to pursue Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it missed or ignored Iranian support for the Houthi rebels, who overwhelmed the Yemeni capital in 2014.
With 9/11, Al Qaeda goaded the US into enormously costly ideological wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Benghazi, intentionally or not, it reflected that firepower back on the US, as domestic discontent turned to agitated polarisation. Three years later, facing ever-expanding mountain of “fake news”, and few new, verifiable facts, Americans tuned out on Benghazi entirely, missing its obvious domestic consequences.
The term Benghazi Effect emerged within Washington to describe an exaggerated risk aversion that reflexively followed the attack
The 2016 presidential election is a case in point. In retrospect, it should be easier to see that Benghazi was the common denominator (or origin) of almost every other factor initially blamed or credited for Donald Trump’s election, from the Benghazi Committee to the Committee’s pursuit of Mrs Clinton’s emails, to the FBI’s statements about the subsequent investigations of those emails just days before the election. Even the Russian cyberattacks deployed Benghazi memes.
In a recent book, Bradley Podliska, a lead investigator on the Committee, provides new insight into how the Committee’s priority focus on Mrs Clinton thwarted efforts to understand the evolution of policy failures in Libya (heavily influenced by the Iraq War, and an ambiguous policy towards political Islam), how flawed decision-making processes contributed to the administration’s slow operational response – despite Mr Obama’s order to do “everything necessary” to save American lives in Benghazi.
Other questions remained unanswered, such as how closely the US was dealing with various extremist factions, and whether arms supplied by American proxies to the “moderate” Libyan rebels may have wound up in the hands of the attackers.
As American pundits and policymakers meditate on the legacy of the Iraq War, they would do well to extend coverage to Benghazi, without which the story is incomplete. For Iraq shaped and conditioned the Obama administration’s response to both the 2011 Libyan uprising – and to the Benghazi attack, which resulted from repetition of errors dating back to the early 1980s. The broader political reaction to the attack again demonstrated how fused American domestic politics and foreign policy have become, and how inconsistency and disorder in one realm affects the other.
Given the pace of change in the Middle East, is a reduced American presence helping or hurting? Probably both. There are many strong arguments for the US’s active engagement in the region: once lost, or ceded, influence is infinitely harder to regain – even if the US remains the world superpower by a significant margin; the Middle East is an integral part of a much larger geopolitical dynamic, whose future contours are unknown; the US has very close relations with many countries in the region – the UAE being a case in point; in almost every transformative technical field, the US is a global leader; and last, the best way to understand what’s going on, is to be present.
The more relevant question may be, can the US find ways to curb the politicisation of its foreign policy and national security bureaucracies, so it can reliably steer between the extreme recklessness that followed 9/11, and the extreme caution that followed Benghazi?