Say “Benghazi” Again, I Dare You

September 16, 2014

The other day, something excruciatingly ordinary happened to me: something on Twitter pissed me off. The tweet in question was sponsored (and therefore bullied its way into my feed) and proclaimed, “It’s been 2 years since the Benghazi attack & Obama still won’t tell us the truth. It’s time we demand answers!” The cherry on top was the patriotic video that showed a young boy waving an American flag before turning to the “unanswered questions” of Benghazi.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the allegation of a “Benghazi cover-up” has been one of a handful of consistent Republican talking points for the last two years. And this video stokes that flame. A more recent tweet by the same organization, Secure America Now, claims former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “is responsible for the Benghazi attack.” Why does the social media activity of a political action committee interest me so? The Secure America Now Foundation was the driving force behind launching a Select Committee on Benghazi. This committee, chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy, is about to hold its first hearing, just in time for the mid-term elections.

But why am I so frustrated? Is it because all of the “unanswered” questions have, in fact, been answered or are based on false information? After rounds of hearings held by multiple committees and full-throated investigations by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the House Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and, of course, the U.S. State Department, there are no unanswered questions about the attack of note. But that’s not why I’m angry. Is it because Benghazi is being used as a political prop in an election year? That’s closer to it, but it’s not the real problem. Being against rough-and-tumble electoral politics in America is about as productive as being against gravity.

So what’s my problem? The myopic, non-stop, constant focus on Benghazi since the day of the tragic September 2012 attack angers me so because it carries with it a massive opportunity cost for congressional oversight. Congressional Republicans, with a few exceptions, have missed many opportunities to show they have a serious interest in foreign and defense policy. It is time for Republicans in Congress to show they are interested in more than obstruction, peddling unsubstantiated allegations, and throwing temper tantrums.

Contrary to the impression I may have given so far, I have a big problem with President Obama’s foreign policy record and approach. And I see several issues that deserve, and in fact demand, congressional investigation far more than the Benghazi attacks do.

To be clear, I do not think the Benghazi attacks were insignificant. Aside from the obvious human tragedy involved in losing American lives, the initial furor over the attack – largely led by Republicans – accomplished three important things. It laid bare the incompetence and cynicism of President Obama’s national security communications apparatus. It tanked the hopes of Susan Rice, known to be intemperate and undiplomatic, to head the State Department. And – most importantly – the attacks revealed that America’s ability to project power from the sea at short notice had atrophied, in large part due to the ever-smaller size of the U.S. naval fleet. But Benghazi was still not even close to one of the most strategically significant events of the last few years.

And a cover up? Give me a break. After extensive congressional investigation, dark suspicions and conspiracy theories of nefarious orders given (or not given) by senior administration officials have been dispelled. Susan Rice’s comments on national television after the attack were uninformed and mired in the narrative the Obama administration had been peddling about al-Qaeda’s so-called strategic defeat (more on that below). In the days that followed, the president also equivocated on whether or not it was a terrorist attack. The incident was a coordinated attack by militant groups, America was unprepared to respond to such a contingency with appropriate military force, and the White House’s initial characterization of the events was misleading. But senior officials did not issue any “stand down” orders. All of this was clear within a few months, if not earlier, and did not necessitate the cacophony of committee investigations now entering their third year.

So what should the U.S. Congress be investigating that could actually have a positive impact on the American foreign and defense policy processes? Here is one suggestion that would also show the American people that the Republican Party is truly interested in leadership: the Obama Administration’s failure to understand the jihadist threat.

After President George W. Bush left office, the Obama administration, from the start, aimed to redefine the problem by focusing more narrowly on the organizational elements of al-Qaeda, rather than the broader jihadist movement, networks, and the ideas behind it. In part, this came from a good place – a desire to walk back some of the more expansive rhetoric and the damaging “war on terror” frame of the Bush Administration. But President Obama overcorrected. According to this new framework, if a group wasn’t called al-Qaeda or allied with them, they weren’t a part of the war. As soon as Osama Bin Laden’s body was dumped into the sea, if not before, this administration began making noises about the end of al-Qaeda. In July 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta even said, “I’m convinced that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” The “Arab Spring” was seen by many American leaders as a rejection of jihadism. Of course, the jihadist movement didn’t agree with any of this.

The movement’s biggest enemies, such as Hosni Mubarak, were removed from power and saw their security establishments weakened. Today’s threat has emerged from the broader jihadist movement, where the U.S. government wasn’t looking as closely. It has taken the form of militias calling themselves “Ansar al-Sharia” across North Africa, or “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” It no longer emanates purely from the ranks of the al-Qaeda organization.

The Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy and view of the threat needs to be reassessed without returning to the panic and hyperventilation that defined the Bush years. Congress has a key role to play. But first, it’s time to drop Benghazi.


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Peter Stevens (adapted by WOTR)