After 11 congressional hearings, an independent review and the release of 100 pages of relevant interagency emails about Benghazi, all serious questions about the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Libya have been answered. Only political grandstanding remains — and the stakes in the Middle East and North Africa are far too high for the American people to tolerate point-scoring in lieu of genuine action.
In his May address at the National Defense University, President Obama observed that moving forward in the region will require not only a new strategy, but also a new politics. Republican members of Congress have been doggedly focused on perceived shortcomings of U.S. policy in Middle East, but they should now apply that vigor to serious bipartisan efforts to aid the democratic transitions throughout the Arab world, protect American personnel abroad, secure US interests and give our government the tools it needs to plan and execute a real, long-term Middle East strategy. Congressional Republicans can show that they are serious about these goals by pursuing at least these three critical policies:
Pass the diplomatic security bill. The furor that erupted over canceled White House tours and airline delays reveals the truth — inconvenient to some — that the vast majority of federal money actually goes to providing valuable services to the American public. Cutting budgets to the bone has real consequences, and few priorities are more critical than ensuring the safety of American diplomats and personnel abroad. Congressional Republicans should join Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to pass S.B. 980, which would “properly fund embassy security and construction in our most high risk, high threat areas.”
This bill would fund the implementation of the independent review board’s recommendations in addition to helping our government ward off future attacks. Senate Republicans who were right to be deeply concerned about the loss of life in Benghazi should be eager to support the formation of a Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, to boost funding for the Arabic language training that can unlock better intelligence and to revise security contracting to ensure that our embassies have the best, rather than the cheapest, guards available. President Obama has made clear that “we need to come together and truly honor the sacrifice of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world.” Acting quickly to pass the Menendez legislation should be a real priority for both parties.
Fully fund the MENA Incentive Fund. The president first proposed the $700 million fund in his 2012 budget, designed to be a potent and flexible tool to support the development of civil society organizations and non-sectarian forces throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The democratic revolutions that spread throughout the Arab world risk backsliding as the critical institutions of responsible self-governance struggle to get off the ground. The way to temper the more autocratic inclinations of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is not by abandoning the region or by simply buying them off with blank checks; we must redouble our efforts to aid the development of modern civil society in these countries so that everyday people can express themselves constructively and powerfully in the public square.
This is why then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) heralded the MENA Incentive Fund as a “no-brainer” when it was first introduced, explaining that it would give the State Department “the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies ... [and help to] empower moderates and reformers.” Effective U.S. policy in the region cannot be simply reactive. We must use every tool at our disposal to actively support the type of self-governance that millions of people in the Arab world demanded for themselves when they took to the streets during the Arab Spring. While fiscal politics have become nearly toxic, the president has correctly noted that “foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.”
Convene serious hearings on a forward-looking Middle East strategy. House Republicans have been eager to use their oversight powers to convene hearing after hearing on issues surrounding Benghazi, Iran and Egypt. They could truly do a service to the country by applying that enthusiasm to convening a series of serious, substantive hearings on American grand strategy in the Middle East. Since 2009, the primary thrust of U.S. policy in the region has been to extricate ourselves from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to suppress the threat of terrorism. While speaking recently about the so-called war on terror, Obama correctly identified that policy as being at a crossroads. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” he warned. And “to define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom.”
The Middle East and North Africa remain one of the last places on earth to truly embrace modernity, and the Arab Spring proved that business as usual will no longer suffice. Instead of pivoting away from the region, American policymakers must recognize that the United States will continue to have vital economic, security and geo-strategic interests in the Middle East for decades to come. It is past time for us to update our long-term approach to those countries so that it reflects real vision and a holistic understanding of how our goals there fit into our larger set of global interests. Congress has shown that they are adept at calling hearings. They should gather the brightest minds and call a few on this topic.
Speaking nearly four years ago in Cairo, Obama recognized both the challenges and opportunities facing the Arab word. “I know there are many — Muslim and non-Muslim — who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort — that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash.” That is not the only path, however. If we are to secure American interests, act constructively in the world and see everyday people in the Middle East transcend the shackles of chaos and repression, we will need to move past petty division and find opportunities for bipartisanship, partnership, and productive engagement. Implementing these three policies can begin to forge that vital way forward.
Bosserman directs the MENA Initiative at NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network