Indeed, the attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Libya make it clear that Washington has some serious problems to tackle in the region… and there is a right way to go about it.
First get the facts. At the height of the toughest fighting in World War II, General Manton Eddy used to constantly remind his staff, “things are never half as good or half as bad as the first reports into the command post.” Decision-makers rarely have “all” the facts they need before they do have to do something, but it is usually good to wait at least a little while to make sure you know enough to speak and act responsibly.
In the case, of the Cairo apology memo, the matter is pretty clear cut. It was a dumb memo. So dumb—it produced a rare moment of bipartisanship: Romney criticized it; Obama withdrew it.
On the other hand, it is probably worth waiting a bit before drawing larger conclusions about the attacks on the embassy. The fact is an embassy attack—even two of them—whether resulting from spontaneous violence or an orchestrated attack, can happen on any president’s watch. America can’t be made safe by hiding. Our men and women—in and out of uniform—are out there every day, protecting us and our interests. And that will always make them a tempting target.
Numerous questions remain about the origins of the attacks, the state of security at the U.S. facilities, and the responses of the host government. Let’s get a modicum of facts before we draw too many conclusions about what happened and why, much less what this should mean for the future of U.S. policy.
That said, the tragedy in Benghazi is no cause for declaring a moratorium on debate about U.S. policy in the region. There is plenty worth debating.
Libya offers a good case in point. Recently, the administration replaced the traditional 5,000+ word “background note” on Libya with a terse “fact sheet” that said little more than:
"Libya faces the challenges of building democratic institutions, protecting the universal rights of all Libyans, promoting accountable and honest government, rebuilding its economy, and establishing security throughout the country. The United States has a strategic interest in a stable and prosperous Libya, and is supporting Libya’s democratic transition in cooperation with the UN and other international partners."
That conclusion glosses over numerous, serious challenges in both the country and the region. For example, foreign Islamist fighters, veterans of other conflicts, have been dispatched to Libya, Syria and other nations in the region to sow instability. Further, we know one consequence of the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was to open a pipeline for groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to channel fighters into an Islamist uprising in northern Mali. Terrorist groups in North Africa and the Sahel (a band of territory in Sub-Saharan Africa running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea) see themselves as a band of brothers. Left unchecked, this potentially represents a proliferation of new Afghanistans.
In Egypt, without even knowing the real force and reason behind the embassy attacks, we know enough see that there are deep divisions within the Islamist movement. As Heritage regional expert Jim Phillips ominously notes, “A similar competition was the principal motivation for the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which Islamists linked to Ayatollah Khomeini exploited to discredit and ultimately oust Iran’s provisional government and marginalize rival factions of moderate Islamists, secularists, nationalists, leftists and liberals.” The Arab Spring is very much unfinished business.
The turmoil in North Africa comes at time when there are also serious questions about U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran. This part of the world is nothing like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whoever holds the office of president in January will not be able to ignore the region’s challenges to U.S. interests. It is a subject that cannot and should not be put off limits until then.
Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation