The facts of the case are this: a Sept. 11 attack carried out by armed extremists in Benghazi, Libya, took the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Nearly everything else is unclear. Given that it took the Federal Bureau of Investigation three weeks to gain access to the consulate, which was left unsecured during that time, a conclusive investigation is unlikely. No one knows exactly what happened that night and any one who claims differently is lying. And no matter how many resources the government devotes to “bringing those responsible to justice,” as President Obama has promised, it’s unlikely that a crystal picture of the attack will ever emerge.
But that hasn’t prevented the attack from becoming a political football in a campaign season, with each side bending scant evidence to make their case.
Republicans argue that the attack in Libya is the latest, and most compelling, evidence that the Obama Administration’s foreign policy has been a failure. “When something goes bad, they deny, they deceive, and they delay. And the truth is we’re not safer. Al Qaeda is alive. Bin Laden may be dead. Al Qaeda is alive and they’re counter-attacking throughout the entire region,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “And the truth is that the foreign policy choices of President Obama is allowing the region to come unraveled.”
Shoe-horning the Benghazi attack into a narrative about Obama’s weakness on foreign policy – a Karl Rovian play to attack Obama’s strength – misses the better policy argument. Senator John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, asked the right question when he wanted to know what America is doing in Benghazi? What’s Obama’s plan for that nation and for the Middle East as a whole? The more effective Republican attack might be to question Obama’s lack of vision for the region, although Romney doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive plan either.
From Iran’s currency collapse to Syria’s civil war, the Middle East is experiencing a period of instability that many analysts believe will continue for the better part of the next decade. “One of the great problems we have is this reference to the ‘Arab Spring,’ because that implies a short term event.The reality is the unrest on the Middle East has built up for decades. The problems are as much political as they are economic and demographic and they’re not going to go away quickly.” says Anthony Cordesman, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to several Republican presidents. “What is it the U.S. can do to change the structure as some 600 million Muslims decide what their future is going to be? Well, we can have an impact but it isn’t going to be a President Romney or President Obama who dictates the future of the Muslim world.”
One of the few things Republicans and Democrats agree upon is Americans’ war weariness in the Middle East. No one wants to send in troops anywhere. But diplomacy is hard work. Coalition building and democratic reform–exactly what U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was working on when he was killed –don’t produce quick and clean results in the Middle East. As one of Romney’s top foreign policy adviser’s Dan Senor told Fox News in 2005 about Iraq: “We often said when we were there that democracy is messy. If you want clean and tidy, there’s dictatorship. But right now, these leaders are immersed in their first sort of democratic experiments, negotiating, horse-trading.”
The messiness of democratic transitions is Democrats’ strongest retort to Republican criticism. “Achieving genuine democracy and broad-based growth will be a long and difficult process. Look at our own history,” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Friday. “More than two centuries after our revolution, we’re still working toward that more perfect union.”
But that message has often been lost amid Washington finger-pointing. The bigger picture isn’t about intelligence failures or embassy security funding. Given U.S. interests in the region, the government will continue to take risks operating in unstable countries. So in the next three weeks while Americans are still focused on this issue, Obama and Romney should both answer the question: What is their strategy to stabilize the Middle East?