America forgot – or more precisely, ignored – the 10th anniversary of the 2012 terrorist attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya. This past September 11, news coverage was dominated by the death of the Queen, and Donald Trump's legal problems. In the background, there were ritualistic tributes to the victims of the 2001 attacks. But there was virtually no mention of the "other" 9/11, on its second significant anniversary, or those who sacrificed their lives: Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Glen Doherty, Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods.
In some way, this isn't at all surprising. Most Americans associate "Benghazi" not with the attack, but a years'-long, mind-numbing partisan melee, that appeared to have no meaning beyond politics. But ten years later, Benghazi's absence from discussion should be, if not surprising, then very worrying. Because it reflects how little energy has been spent in the years since, reflecting on what "Benghazi" (the attack, and the scandal) has done to the United States. We remain collectively unaware of the attack's deep links to the original 9/11 attacks, to the spike in American polarization, to the arc of conflict in the Middle East – and even, Russia's expansionism and the war in Ukraine.
Here are a few insights from my just-released book, " Benghazi: A New History ," on the big-brush causes and consequences of the attack:
1.) The Benghazi attack was a long time in coming. It was attributable, broadly, to an unsupervised 2003 makeup with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (and his Al-Qaeda-linked opponents), and a wildly inconsistent US policy towards political Islam (which spans ideologies from the Muslim Brotherhood, to Al Qaeda and ISIS). Taking a page from the Cold War, the US tried to 'co-opt' those we thought were, or had become, "moderates" (some of whom we had tortured , and were surprised when, in the chaos of the Arab Spring, we couldn't tell which was which.
2.) Benghazi was in many ways the 'perfect political scandal', because of its timing, and technology. The attack occurred at the cusp of the 2012 presidential election, on the anniversary of 9/11, and in an election where national security and Middle East policy were in play. A US ambassador was killed. According to a number of prominent data scientists, it also occurred at an important point in the development of social media, which was suddenly capable of taking a promising controversy, and using it to split public opinion into self-reinforcing extremes.
3.) A key ingredient, or precondition, for igniting the scandal was a long-standing, but increasingly dysfunctional dynamic between Republicans and Democrats, in which the former assumed the role of "pursuers" and the latter, for lack of a better term, "escapers." The Obama administration was elected in part on its perceived ability to change the channel on war in the Middle East, and wanted to focus on domestic issues, like the global economic crisis, and healthcare, but found itself (or felt itself) cripplingly vulnerable to attacks from the Right over anything linked to 9/11 or terrorism.
4.) Fearing a second term loss – and not for the first time – the Obama administration tried to postpone both discovery and recognition of the causes of the Benghazi attack until after the election (for a full description of how this happened, and the question of intent, see my book . For a detailed description of the Obama administration's reaction to Right wing pressures over the war in Afghanistan, and its relevance to the 2012 election, see Washington Post correspondent Craig Whitlock's book .
But general public discomfort with the White House messaging on Benghazi, allowed the Right to inflate the issue and build upon it a series of claims increasingly divorced from reality (the height of which may have been the " Pizzagate " episode). A knee-jerk instinct towards self-defense may have saved (or at least, not lost) Obama's second term, but it came a tremendous cost to the country, and to Obama's own legacy (as it attached a time bomb to Secretary Clinton's candidacy).
5.) While Benghazi-fever petered out closer to the 2016 election, seeming to morph into other controversies (such as that over Clinton's emails), it was the common denominator to practically every factor blamed (or credited) for the election of Donald Trump, from the emails (unearthed and ventilated by the Benghazi Committee), to FBI Director James Comey's nth hour announcements, to the Russian cyber attacks – which used Benghazi memes and slogans liberally. As former Secretary Clinton wrote, four years of continuous Benghazi "slime" couldn't be washed off. But to this day, neither party has been able to own up to the fact that both contributed to "Benghazi"– albeit in very different ways.
6.) In the realm of US foreign policy, Benghazi produced what has been referred to by a number of senior US officials, across branches of government, as the "Benghazi Effect:" a pervasive, knee-jerk aversion to risk abroad, lest it lead to another another cycle of domestic political retribution. The first casualty was Benghazi itself, a city in which we had intervened the year before to avert a Gaddafi massacre. With our quick exit, we delivered the city, and much of Eastern Libya, to Al Qaeda, and then ISIS. Further, as GW Professor Marc Lynch has noted, Benghazi "pushed Libya's fragile transition process into a death spiral," from which the country has been suffering greatly ever since.
As other analysts have noted, at a minimum, Benghazi likely "killed any appetite" for stronger action in Syria. That hesitance was seen by many Syrians, and other states as a signal that no help was coming, and prompted a massive inflow of arms, fighters and cash – some of it from Libya. And Benghazi was a factor in the US' deeper reliance on remote control warfare in places like Yemen, where such tactics turned the local population against us, distracted from the growth of Iran-backed groups like the Ansar Allah (more commonly known as the Houthis), and ultimately helped create a humanitarian disaster.
7.) More broadly, the United States' increasing and lack of long-term vision in the Middle East and elsewhere, has allowed our adversaries, including Russia, and China to expand into the spaces we've left behind. Russia used Benghazi-accelerated chaos in Libya and Syria to deepen its presence in both countries, and as a springboard to land-grabs in Crimea and Ukraine. Turkey used the chaos in Libya similarly to advance territorial ambitions in Libya and the Mediterranean.
As former National Defense University Professor Robert Springborg has noted, the "original sin" of the George W. Bush administration lay in "treating Bin Laden's attack as a call to an ideological war, rather than a mass criminal act." Benghazi was like a signal booster for this process. Except this time, our guns weren't just aimed at jihadists abroad, they were aimed at ourselves.
Over the last handful of administrations, both Republican and Democrat, American foreign policy has increasingly become a tool in a massive exercise in self-harm: What the US does abroad is more often a reflection of a partisan political interest, than core American interests. The United States cannot continue for long as a superpower under these circumstances. But before we can devise a strategy for unravelling this mess, we need to understand how we got here. And it's well beyond time we recognize Benghazi as a significant piece in that puzzle.
Ethan Chorin is author of “Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink." A former US Diplomat posted to Libya from 2004-2006, who returned to Libya during the 2011 revolution to help build medical infrastructure, he was an eyewitness to the Benghazi attack.
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