On Benghazi’s 10th anniversary, ex-diplomat Ethan Chorin offers context: NPR
Benghazi. It has become a political Rorschach test for the country. The right sees it as anything wrong with Democratic foreign policy or some kind of cover-up, while the left sees it as conspiracy theories pushed by conservatives.
Ethan Chorin’s book Benghazi! A new story of the fiasco that pushed America and its world to the brink takes several steps back to provide much-needed context—historical, regional, political, and social—to the September 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
One thing is clear: there is a lot of blame to be had for what led up to the attack and, more importantly, the response after that attack.
This hits close to home for Chorin. He was in Benghazi when the attack took place. A former diplomat, Chorin served in Libya from 2004 to 2006, during the rapprochement of the George W. Bush administration with the country and its former leader Muammar Gaddafi. It was an opportunity to “look under the hood” of a country closed to America for decades. His love for the country and the people he met is evident through the pages of his book. After the uprising, he and a Libyan-American from Texas formed a nonprofit organization to focus on providing medical aid to Libya.
Chorin also knew Stevens. He admired what Stevens stood for in the State Department: expeditionary diplomacy. It’s the idea that diplomacy requires some degree of risk-taking rather than staying behind fortified walls. The two men were due to meet in Benghazi on September 12. Along with a solid understanding of Libya, the two men shared a hope for the country’s future and America’s role there.
It’s easy to get lost in all the details Chorin presents that most Americans don’t know about: the legacy of colonialism, past U.S. support for dictatorships in the region, the lack of opportunity at home and anger towards the Gaddafi regime. , the “flip-flop” interactions the West has had with different leaders and groups on the ground and much more. What is not lost on most Americans, however, is the role that domestic politics subsequently played.
Former US Senator Arthur Vandenberg once said, “Politics stops at the water’s edge”. Yes, politicians can fight each other in the United States, but when it comes to foreign policy – and especially when it comes to tragedies – politicians of all political stripes usually come together in a united front.
For years, we’ve seen that unravel – but for Chorin, domestic politics is what has armed Benghazi in a way he’s never seen before. “By trying to score political points rather than trying to fix a broken system, they only perpetuated a controversy that was further tearing the county apart.” Part of this book is to ask whether Benghazi started this trend or was the best-known symptom of the trend.
He reviews all the domestic politics at stake: the upcoming presidential election in 2012, the controversy over what sparked the attack (no, it wasn’t an anti-Muslim video), why help was slow in coming. (there was no withdrawal order), how it was used to attack the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton), the role played by the media and social media, the lack of intelligence on the field and more. As if to emphasize that the focus has become entirely political, he notes that ten congressional investigations have failed to answer some basic questions – like who carried out the attack in order to bring them to justice or why the embassy used local militias to protect the US Consulate in Benghazi.
“The fact that so many inquiries have resulted in so few answers is its own tragedy. From the edges of the five-ring political circus that was Benghazi, certain voices have cried out important questions, none of which have been answered. “, he writes. “The Benghazi committee might have been able to innovate and serve the country if it had focused on them.”
Benghazi, says Chorin, has entered the American lexicon defined as a scandal, not a tragedy like 9/11, the USS Cole bombing or the 1998 US Embassy bombings. In the years since, there have been headlines asking “Is Niger Trump’s Benghazi” or “Is Afghanistan Biden’s Benghazi”. Chorin writes “it has become shorthand for any type of event that can be blown up for partisan advantage”.
For Chorin, writing this book was “like therapy”. He finds himself with more questions than answers about the attack, which he describes as an event that “morphed into a rationality-devouring creature that developed weapon conspiracy theories and ended up seeding terror throughout the American socio-political landscape”. And there is a strong sense of lost opportunity, not just for Libyans, but for America.
In the end, what Chorin is really trying to do is give Benghazi its due, by doing the impossible: trying to lift the political fog of what happened that day. He’s trying to get answers that a nonpartisan investigation into the attack should have been trying to find – so America can learn of what happened so that it doesn’t happen again – and not just score political points.
If that can happen, Chorin believes, then the American lives lost in Benghazi that day will not have been in vain.
Whether that can happen in the current political climate remains to be seen. But that seems doubtful.
Caitlyn Kim is a reporter in Washington, DC, for Colorado Public Radio. She worked as a US diplomat from 2013 to 2018, serving in Estonia, Pakistan and Washington.