How Partisan Bickering Sabotaged America's Middle East Policy

Fights in Washington have taken priority over stabilizing the region and securing the United States.
The damaged U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 12, 2012. (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

The furious partisan debate that erupted this week after a New York Times investigation questioned the central tenet of the Republican assault on the White House regarding Benghazi was a fitting end to 2013.

The lengthy article revealed that the State Department and CIA’s intense focus on al Qaeda caused officials to miss the threat posed by local militias. David Kirkpatrick’s reporting showed that Libya’s rebels appreciated the U.S. support in helping oust Muammar al-Qaddafi, but were strongly influenced by decades of anger at Washington’s support for dictators in the region.

Militants gained strength from Syria to the Sahel over the course of 2013. Republicans and Democrats, however, remained focused on winning their daily messaging battle in Washington.

Neither the American left nor the right has offered a serious strategy for how to respond to the emergence of new types of militant groups across the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s approach consisted of trusting unchecked CIA drone strikes and NSA eavesdropping to secure the United States. Republicans used the region’s instability as a cudgel to beat the president with.

Here are three of 2013’s most troubling developments in the Middle East—and Washington’s perfunctory responses that were a disservice to all Americans.

Benghazi's Meaning: As Amy Davidson correctly noted in The New Yorker this week, Washington’s response to months of investigation on the ground in Libya and Egypt by Times reporters Kirkpatrick, Suliman Ali Zway, Osama Alfitori, and Mayy El Sheikh quickly devolved into a useless debate over the term “al Qaeda.”

Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)—eager to undermine Obama administration statements that core al Qaeda has been weakened—insisted that the group involved in the attack “claims an affiliation with al Qaeda,” as if that was the same as an actual relationship with core al Qaeda’s remaining leaders.

Fox News commentator and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer dismissed the story as an effort “to protect Hillary [Clinton].” Fox News terrorism analyst Walid Phares absurdly argued that Kirkpatrick was “known to side with Islamists.”

The broad message from the left, meanwhile, was that the United States only makes things worse in the Middle East when it acts there. On MSNBC, Karen Finney said the story exonerated the Obama administration because it found that a fake Hollywood video mocking the Prophet Muhammad did, in fact, help spark the attack.

Isolationists on the left and the right argued that any military action—particularly one carried out by the United States—was destructive.

What was lost when each side cherry-picked conclusions that fit their worldview? The Libyan people’s growing disdain of militias, both jihadi and tribal. In November, Libyans outraged by rising lawlessness drove militias out of Tripoli. Libya’s weak central government, however, lacks the properly trained security forces needed to assert control.

Libya’s first democratically-elected prime minister—a pro-Western moderate—asked in June for American and NATO forces to help train government security forces. Washington’s response? After five months of talk, the United States agreed in November to train 6,000 to 8,000 Libyan soldiers at a military base in Bulgaria. This paltry effort will not be nearly enough to aid Libyans who oppose militancy.

U.S. and NATO military forces should not enter Libya—a move we know from past experience will strengthen jihadists there. But a far larger training effort should be mounted outside Libya.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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