I had feared that the political outrage about the Benghazi attacks in Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was just the product of the 2012 presidential campaign. The focus on UN Ambassador Susan Rice and those talking points was simply an attempt to taint the Obama White House with strategic and management deficiencies. The Benghazi controversy was, I thought, nothing more than a distraction.
I was wrong. It gave us the Benghazi hearings Wednesday, which turned out to be remarkably educational — though not for the reasons that Hillary Clinton’s House and Senate inquisitors expected.
It is entertaining to linger on all the theatrics surrounding Wednesday’s congressional hearings with the secretary of state. There was Senator John McCain’s anger and accusations, Senator Richard Durbin’s “he didn’t go there, did he?” invocation of Republican intelligence failures in Iraq, and an entire House committee that never let her speak. But ultimately, there was no new information on the attacks, the immediate response, or the administration’s subsequent spin.
Far more informative were the exchanges between Clinton and members of both parties: about the independence of the State Department’s budget authority, the need to steer resources toward diplomatic security as our military footprint declines in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deficiencies in intelligence-sharing with the Pentagon, and the need for strong congressional oversight over a bureaucracy that will exist long after Clinton is gone.
The hearings showed the public how a solid foreign policy gets made in the real world — not through grand pronouncements or public posturing, but by the activities of bureaucracy that, ideally, is staffed by people like Stevens.
Indeed, Clinton’s testimony is best understood as a reply to the critics, from the left as well as the right, that President Obama’s inaugural speech a few days before had failed to lay out a vision of the world. True, that address barely focused on America’s role in the world, except possibly in the context of climate change. It did not mention a single country by name, not even Iraq or Afghanistan. These omissions made lawmakers of both parties doubt whether Obama has any grand strategy at all.
But grand strategies are overrated. They are no more likely to guide this nation to noble efforts (for example, the Marshall Plan to support Europe after World War II) than painful ones (the domino theory to curtail communism in Vietnam or the global war on terror to justify the war in Iraq). Interventionist fervor — no matter the reason — tends to reflect not reality, but advocacy by people with agendas. But apparently the absence of a broad interventionist strategy in Obama’s inaugural speech is something we should be worried about.
Turns out, a more nuanced analysis emerged days later at the hearings.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” Clinton said in response to a question about the Al Qaeda-inspired violence throughout Northern Africa. “This is unprecedented.’’ She then proceeded to lay out a reality check about violence in Mali, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and Algeria.
The Benghazi attacks, she said, were likely the beginning of another wave of Al Qaeda-inspired violence: smaller but still deadly. The end of totalitarian governments will lead to more disruption, ideological fervor, and black-market weapons trading. It is the undeniable consequence of regime change, whether it comes from an invasion (Iraq), a limited intervention (Libya), a nudge (Egypt), or a hands-off policy (Syria) on America’s part.
What is unfolding across the African continent is a phenomenon described by foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead, a critic of the humanitarian intervention there, as the “Libyan afterparty.” Yet Clinton’s critics surely can’t believe that the alternatives — civil war there, propping up Moammar Khadafy, or putting more troops in — would have guaranteed Stevens’ safety or anyone else’s. We have no idea.
There are those still arrogant enough to believe that Americans can control events through force. But accepting, honestly, the challenges we face in the region means that we can focus less on some grand strategy that is sure to disappoint and more on the bureaucratic deficiencies that hinder our capacity to defend ourselves.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.