December 4, 2013

Benghazi syndrome harms U.S.

It’s time to move past the tragedy in Libya and get back to work.

Sen. Lindsey Graham and others on Capitol Hill are demanding further inquiries into the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, apparently convinced that the Obama administration is withholding crucial information.

I often wonder whether Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and others who exploit the Benghazi issue to attack the president realize that their politicking affects the ability of U.S. diplomats to carry out their work.

I served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Libya before, during and after the attack, and I saw firsthand how playing politics with Benghazi directly hurts our interests in Libya and beyond.

At the time of the attack, on Sept. 11, 2012, I was the public affairs officer at the Tripoli embassy, responsible for broadening our relations with the new Libya by forging ties between Americans and Libyans.

That kind of bond-building had been virtually impossible during the 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, but in 2012 many Libyans were eager to engage.

U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was a great advocate of such contact, but that didn’t mean we weren’t careful.

We had a range of security protocols in place, but they were flexible enough to allow us to meet with Libyans from all walks of life at cafes, restaurants and a variety of institutions.

I was scheduled to join the ambassador in Benghazi to open a small American library on Sept. 12.

Successive polls have shown that Libyans hold very positive views of the U.S., thanks to America’s support for the 2011 revolution, and Ambassador Stevens was determined to build on that good will. That was good foreign policy.

Building a strong bilateral relationship would help to reduce the appeal of extremism and further American interests in countless areas, security included.

In the wake of the attacks, security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli (630 miles from Benghazi) was tightened immeasurably, programs were canceled and American staff were evacuated.

I was one of a small group of people who stayed behind to continue the diplomatic outreach. We were vastly, almost comically, outnumbered by security staff and prevented from leaving the embassy except on the rarest of occasions.

We were cut off from a regular flow of information vital to both security and diplomacy.

Diplomatic engagement was re-energized with the arrival of a new ambassador this summer and the announcement of a U.S.-British-Italian plan to provide much-needed military training for Libyan troops.

But intense political scrutiny in Washington has continued to prevent the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli from striking the right balance between mission and security.

Once an embassy becomes a fortress, it is hard to change course. Extreme risk-aversion becomes the norm among decision-makers responsible for security in both Washington and the field.

It was appropriate after the Benghazi attacks for Congress to examine the attacks and evaluate security shortcomings and failures.

This was done, and a report was also issued by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board. Special hearings called in May revealed nothing new.

It’s time to move past the tragedy and get back to work.

Focusing on the past events in Benghazi instead of finding ways to help Libya overcome its challenges is a disservice to the goals of the 2011 Libyan revolution and the support America and its allies provided to it.

Thousands of U.S. diplomats do their jobs every day, conscious of the dangers they face but accepting of the risks that come with the job.

Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College, was a Foreign Service officer with the State Department from 2004 to 2013. mietek.boduszynski@pomona.edu

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