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Benghazi, Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy: America’s Broken System

The much-publicized hearings over the Benghazi fiasco have neglected to examine the proper balance of security and flexibility for America's diplomats—or the limitations of military intervention as a tool for improving security environments.

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All states seeking to craft coherent and sensible foreign policies must draw upon their own domestic political systems to air debates, consider options, and choose the policies that best suit the country’s interests and objectives.

When there is domestic political consensus developed through due consideration and debate, the state is always better off as it moves to adopt and then execute a foreign policy. During the Cold War, for example, the informal alliance of Republican and Democrats provided the foundation for a reasonably consistent American foreign policy for 40+ years.

That alliance started fraying in the mid 1990s and today lies in tatters as the Republican Party has lurched to the far right, refusing to participate in any constructive attempt to craft sensible domestic or foreign policies that address the problems of the day. About the only thing Republican and Democrats can agree on in foreign policy is their knee-jerk, damn the torpedoes support for Israel – a relationship of little geostrategic importance for the United States.

The depressing and fractious hearings over the tragic death of Ambassador Christopher Smith and three other Americans in Libya provide only latest example of the impact that our broken domestic politics is having on foreign policy.

Instead of using the awful circumstances of Ambassador Smith’s death to help illuminate the policy problems and choices facing the United States in the Middle East, Republicans appear committed to conjuring up a repacked version of Whitewater, replete with missing e-mails and an imaginary cover-up.

Meanwhile, the broader lessons and implications of the disaster in Benghazi go unexamined – lessons that could constructively shape our approach to the many foreign policy problems confronting the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere.

If we had responsible, adult leadership in the Congress (particularly in the House of Representatives), we could have hearings that examined two critically important issues: (1) the appropriate balance between safety, security and the requirements for our diplomats to do their jobs; (2) the wider lessons of our intervention in Libya and the implications for potential interventions elsewhere. These are issues worthy of congressional attention.

First, our diplomats face the difficult task of squaring the circle between security and doing a job that requires them to interact with their counterparts in as open and transparent a way as they can manage. In the Middle East, our diplomats already are sequestered in Fort Knox-like facilities throughout the region that make it difficult for them to do their jobs effectively.

These stockade-like embassies and their dizzying layers of security isolate our experts from the very people and circumstances that provide the basis for the reporting from our foreign outposts that we need to make informed foreign policy decisions.

All indications are that Ambassador Smith appreciated these issues and problems. The very reason he went to Benghazi of his own volition was to develop a better understanding of the tangled web of Libyan politics. He understood that his job was to report that nuanced understanding and analysis to the State Department so that it could craft an appropriate policy towards the fledgling state.

We should avoid promulgating a host of new and even more restrictive security measures in response to the attack on the Benghazi consulate. It is neither possible nor desirable for our diplomats to rumble around their countries in MRAPs protected by a platoon of Marines or, worse, by mercenary-like Blackwater security guards with their machineguns and wrap around sunglasses.

Having said that, we need to make sure that we have sensibly balanced the need to protect our skilled and committed public servants with the need to provide decision-makers in Washington with the most informed analysis possible to help craft foreign policy. Do we have the balance right? Hearings might help answer this critical question.

Second, the tragic circumstances of the attack on the Benghazi consulate provide a vivid reminder of the limitations facing the United States as it considers military interventions in countries like Syria and elsewhere. The intervention in Libya is falsely held up as example of a low-cost, pain free model in which we bomb a few targets from above to back our side in a civil war to drive the dictator out. Some naively believed that dropping a few bombs on Gaddafi’s army would magically create a regime and a country more to our liking.

The struggle for political power in Libya is only just beginning and may take a generation to resolve. The same is true in Syria. These struggles for political power in both countries involve myriad and armed actors with different objectives. In Libya, there is no strong central government and/or political process yet in place to peacefully resolve disputes between the parties and/or armed militias.

The only way for the United States or any other outside power to police these places effectively is to do so with boots on the ground – not from flying around in airplanes 15,000 feet up in the sky. But we can’t and shouldn’t intervene in every global hotspot to police this kind of intra-national disorder. So how do we pick and choose which ones merit our direct involvement?

Hearings that examined these tradeoffs and the costs and benefits of different types of intervention would help inform the policy debate surrounding these issues and illuminate the choices facing the country as it responds to calls for interventions in places like Syria, Mali, and elsewhere.

Sadly, there is little chance of this happening. Instead, the country is prevented from an airing of these important issues by the breakdown in our domestic political consensus and the refusal of Republicans to contribute constructively to an informed policy debate. Instead, the public is treated with political posturing and gamesmanship over the wrong issues — just at the time when the opposite is needed.

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy.

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