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Nicholas Burns

Refocus beyond Benghazi

It’s Washington at its worst — Republicans continue to question this week about what UN Ambassador Susan Rice knew and when she knew it on Benghazi. Partisan pundits who can’t possibly know the details of what happened that terrible day leap to the charge of conspiracy and cover-up. No one waits for the official investigation to conclude before trying to derail the nomination of an honest and talented public servant. Meanwhile, the real Middle East crises in Egypt and Syria barely register on the Capitol’s radar screen.

Of course, Congress has a right and responsibility to ask tough questions about how terrorists were able to overwhelm security and kill four brave public servants at our consulate in Benghazi. It was one of the blackest days in the history of the US Foreign Service. In hindsight, the administration should have handled the public explanation of what happened more effectively. And, the terrorist threat continues against our diplomats in North Africa and throughout the Middle East.

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But the problem with the campaign against Rice is that it is indicting a person who had no line authority for the security of our diplomats that terrible day or the day after. She is, in effect, charged with having had the misfortune of being the administration spokesperson on the following Sunday’s talk shows. Administrations, Democratic and Republican, ask senior officials to adhere to agreed “talking points” in public appearances on the tough issues. Any other official would have said more or less what Rice did had they taken her place on those shows. Yet now she is being hung out to dry in an attempt to deny her the high office for which she is unequivocally qualified.

The real Benghazi issues are the need for Congress to finally fully fund embassy security and to support the administration in going after the terrorists who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. During the last two years, Congress has failed to grant the administration what it has requested to protect our diplomats in an increasingly turbulent Middle East. A real debate would focus on what we must do to reinforce security at our embassies and consulates rather than argue over who said what in the days following the attacks.

What Congress should also focus on are the increasingly serious challenges confronting us in the ever-volatile Middle East. Egypt — the most important Arab country and key US partner — is facing a make-or-break Dec. 15 referendum on a deeply flawed constitution rammed through the Constituent Assembly in the dead of night by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. Egypt is being rocked by a bitter power struggle between Islamists led by President Mohammed Morsi and a squabbling coalition of liberal democratic groups and justices appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak. The United States is scrambling to balance very different competing objectives — on the one hand pushing a stubborn Morsi behind the scenes to support democratic rule, while on the other hand trying to retain influence with his less-than-democratic government so that it might keep the peace with Israel and support us on Iran.

At the same time, the Syrian revolution is entering what may be its climactic phase. President Obama has warned the Assad government not to use chemical weapons. That could trigger a US military response. The Obama administration knows it must finally do what it has long avoided — provide more assistance to the unruly rebel groups struggling to push the bloody Bashar Assad from power. If the United States chooses to recognize the opposition National Council and steps up military aid, it just might make the difference for the strengthening rebel cause. But, if we play it safe and withhold aid from rebel fighters, the United States will likely lose influence with the very people who will end up running the country that is central to our interests in neighboring Israel, Jordan, Iraq and, most importantly, Iran.

These are difficult, complex and serious challenges. The president is trying to focus on them, the Afghan War, North Korean missile threats, raging violence in Congo, and a looming fiscal cliff among other crises foreign and domestic. Too bad the rest of Washington is focused on a phony confirmation fight rather than the real threats right before us.

Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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