Back to Benghazi: How Not to Have a Debate About US Foreign Policy
In the 2012 presidential election, the biggest foreign policy issue was the killing of the US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in September of that year–an incident known by its location: Benghazi. Now, as we gear up for the 2016 presidential race, it looks like the biggest international issue is going to be–Benghazi.
The world is a big place, though you wouldn’t necessarily figure that out if you learned about it solely through electoral politics; in the debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and their running mates in 2012 (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/26/12), there were 14 questions raised about other countries, and only one of those questions (about China) had to do with anyplace outside the Middle East (broadly defined, from Pakistan to Libya). And three of the 14 questions had to do with Benghazi–as many questions as were asked about Afghanistan, where at the time the US had more than 60,000 troops engaged in a ground war.
Since what actually happened at Benghazi seems to have little relationship to the accepted Beltway narrative about Benghazi, it seems unlikely that once again revolving a presidential election’s international discussion around the incident will shed much light on the choices facing the US in the world. But one could hope, at least, that the discussion would broaden beyond what the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did or did not do on September 11, 2012, and look at the conscious policy choices made by Obama and Clinton around Libya that led to the Benghazi assault.
That’s why I was encouraged when I saw the headline on a New York Times op-ed (10/23/15): “Forget Benghazi. What About Libya?”
And why I was so disappointed when I actually read the column.
It was written by David Tafuri, who used to work for the State Department helping to facilitate the occupation of Iraq, and then worked as a lawyer for the Libyan forces on whose behalf the United States intervened to overthrow the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi. Unsurprisingly, his main complaint about US intervention is that there wasn’t enough of it. He describes Clinton as
one of the chief architects of the NATO intervention that saved tens of thousands of lives and freed Libya from the grips of Colonel Qaddafi’s brutal 42-year dictatorship. That would have been a signature foreign policy achievement for Mrs. Clinton and President Obama had the United States not disengaged in Libya.
NATO intervention saved tens of thousands of lives? Not according to Tafuri’s client, the post-intervention government of Libya, which said (AP, 9/8/11) that at least 30,000 people died in the successful effort to overthrow the Libyan government, about half of whom were government security forces. The government later reduced its estimate to as many as 11,500 killed on both sides in the overthrow of Gadhafi; roughly 5,000 have died in the ongoing civil war since then (Foreign Affairs, 3-4/15). Perhaps Tafuri means that these 17,500 or so actual deaths prevented tens of thousands of hypothetical deaths–but casual readers are likely to miss that subtlety.
If the Times hadn’t gone to someone who had lobbied for the Libyan intervention, they might have gotten a different take on it. For example, political scientist Alan Kuperman wrote a policy brief for Harvard’s Belfer Center (9/13) which maintained that
NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors. If Libya was a “model intervention,” then it was a model of failure.
That’s a perspective that, if brought into the presidential campaign, could actually spark a meaningful debate about US foreign policy.