One long and fateful night in a place few Americans could find on a map, four people were killed and ten others were injured. While this could describe an attack anywhere from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, it happened in Benghazi. Political hearings and investigations ran wild with conspiracy, but the attack does raise some interesting questions…why Benghazi and why do we seem so intrigued? Will this continue to haunt U.S. foreign policy like the Raven in Poe’s poem?
To the first question, we may never know exactly but the nature of Gaddafi’s overthrow and the state of Benghazi itself may offer some clues. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Libya’s Arab Spring took a violent turn as rebels and government forces battled for control. Upon his ouster several armed groups, that are mostly civilian led, with heavy artillery were left to control certain areas. These groups include the Abu Ubaidah militia, who acted as police and military in Benghazi at the time of the attack. It’s worth noting that Abu Ubaidah is a sub group of the larger Ansar al Sharia–a Salafist Jihadist organization. While Egypt was able to have a peaceful overthrow largely due to the military’s refusal to shoot its own people, Libya was thrown into violence and then flooded with weapons from the west. Certainly overthrowing Gaddafi was a worthwhile endeavor however flooding a country with weapons is tricky as you don’t control who gets them and in the chaos that follows and the strong often take control.
To the second question, the answer is largely partisanship. Simply put the Republicans need a foreign policy platform to run on and their recent contributions to the debate have been less than inspiring. But this doesn’t get to the bottom of the puzzle as CNN has reported that the CIA is trying to keep a lid on any of their secrets from ever leaking out.
Benghazi is the Raven of the post-Bush era counter-terrorism wars and continues to rap on the doors of foreign policy as symbol of dread. It’s not a perfect analogy but much like the Raven in Poe’s poem it reminds us our past and present. To understand why lets review the basic points of the Benghazi attack:
- Predictions of stability in Libya now look more dubious as political turmoil rises not just in Libya but throughout much of Middle East
- Libya remains unable to quell challenges to internal stability as the escape of 1,100 inmates illustrates
- As Joshua Faust notes this wasn’t a diplomatic embassy that was attacked but a CIA outpost that was center to a heavily secretive CIA operation
Therein lies the omen of the Raven as this indirect “lead from behind” tactic has its own risks and flaws. It should come as no surprise that the CIA was so heavily involved in Benghazi, after all this is post-Bush era strategy of fighting wars without a heavy “boots on the ground” presence. Instead of having a large military force the outpost was working with intellengence and building relationships on the ground, thus the use of the CIA. Stereotypes aside, CIA outposts are not heavily guarded, most having very light security; they rely more on obscurity than imposing military forces. Once that obscurity is blown so too is there best and first line of defense and the risk of this tactic came rap rap rapping on their door.
In a fluid and strategic environment we have put many of our military and intelligence personnel into dangerous and often unstable parts of the world. Many of them serve in isolated posts similar to Benghazi but even well fortified bases are vulnerable to attack from an enemy with good intelligence, some basic weaponry and a willingness to wage a war of attrition. This was the tactic of another group, in another war.
Neither Benghazi nor the more recent events in Yemen are proof that the indirect approach is invalid, instead they point out the difficulties in shaping that strategy. Adapting tactics and means to a rapidly changing political landscape can prove difficult and making one without a shared political vision is harder. To be sure, this approach still better than previous theories of war that proved to be temporary fixes with long, difficult commitments from which we tried to extract ourselves.
The “lead from behind” approach remains the better of the U.S.’s current alternatives, but that Raven will remain as reminder of the costs of its risks and possible failures.