The Benghazi syndrome
Sen. Lindsey Graham and others on Capitol Hill are demanding further inquiries into the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, apparently convinced that the Obama administration is withholding crucial information. But I often wonder whether Graham (R-S.C.) and others who exploit the Benghazi issue to attack the president realize that their politicking affects the ability of American diplomats to carry out their work.
I served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Libya before, during and after the attack, and I saw firsthand how playing politics with Benghazi directly hurts our interests in Libya and beyond.
At the time of the attack, on Sept. 11, 2012, I was the public affairs officer at the Tripoli embassy, responsible for broadening our relations with the new Libya by forging ties between Americans and Libyans. That kind of bond-building had been virtually impossible during the 42 years of Moammar Kadafi’s rule, but I was able to reach out to members of the media, academics, writers and other cultural figures, civil society activists and representatives of women’s and ethnic minority groups. They were generally eager to engage.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was a great advocate of such contact, but that didn’t mean we weren’t careful. Before the attack, we had a range of security protocols in place. They were flexible enough, however, to allow us to meet with Libyans from all walks of life at cafes, restaurants and a variety of institutions. We visited museums and cultural sites and spent hours at the university discussing possible academic linkages between American and Libyan universities. I was scheduled to join the ambassador in Benghazi to open a small American library on Sept. 12.
Successive polls have shown that Libyans hold very positive views of the U.S., thanks to America’s support for the 2011 revolution, and Ambassador Stevens was determined to build on that goodwill. That was good foreign policy. As a largely pro-American Arab and Muslim country, Libya represents a tremendous strategic opportunity for the U.S. Building a strong bilateral relationship would help to reduce the appeal of extremism and further American interests in countless areas, security included.
But, in the wake of the attacks, security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli (630 miles from Benghazi) was tightened immeasurably, programs were canceled and American staff were evacuated. I was one of a small group of people who stayed behind to continue the diplomatic outreach. But we were vastly, almost comically, outnumbered by security staff and prevented from leaving the embassy except on the rarest of occasions. As a result, we were cut off from a regular flow of information vital to both security and diplomacy.
We tried to do what we could, but given their history of living under a paranoid dictator, Libyans were understandably wary about phone conversations. And with such a scaled-down staff, there simply weren’t enough bodies to carry out the full range of diplomatic functions.
Diplomatic engagement was reenergized with the arrival of a new ambassador this summer and the announcement of a U.S.-British-Italian plan to provide much-needed military training for Libyan troops. But intense political scrutiny in Washington has continued to prevent the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli from striking the right balance between mission and security.
As we have seen in other parts of the world, once an embassy becomes a fortress, it is hard to change course. Extreme risk-aversion becomes the norm among decision-makers responsible for security in both Washington and the field. As a result, embassies are cut off from their operating environment.
Congress provides crucial oversight over foreign policy. It was appropriate, after the Benghazi attacks, for Congress to examine the attacks and evaluate security shortcomings and failures. This was done, and a report was also issued by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board. Since then, there has been no new information, no evidence of conspiracies and no smoking gun. Special hearings called in May revealed nothing new. It’s time to move past the tragedy and get back to work.
In November, on what has become known in Libya as “Black Friday,” some 40 unarmed protesters were killed by militia members in Tripoli. Focusing on the past events in Benghazi instead of finding ways to help Libya overcome such security challenges is a disservice to the goals of the 2011 Libyan revolution and the support America and its allies provided to it.
Thousands of U.S. diplomats do their jobs every day, conscious of the dangers they face but accepting of the risks that come with the job. Excessive security that interferes with their jobs doesn’t serve our interests abroad or make us safer at home. The politicians who play political football with Benghazi should be ashamed of themselves.
Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski was a Foreign Service officer with the State Department from 2004 to 2013. He is now an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College.
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