The Right Reaction to the Murders in Benghazi

As Americans, it is all too natural to overreact to events like the killing of our diplomats, especially a high-ranking diplomat like US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. What we need, however, is to take the time—and get the information—that allows us to make to make the right reaction. We will not serve the memory of our fallen, or help our diplomats who continue to serve, unless we react in ways that serve our national strategic interests instead of passion driven by the heat of the moment.

First, we need learn the facts and only target those who are actually guilty. We need to take the time to know exactly who was involved and the full history of events. The current attack may have been triggered by TV coverage of a movie, but there have been previous attacks on U.S. diplomats and the embassy in Libya, and incidents in Egypt as well. Nothing could be more dangerous that attacking an entire government, blaming an entire nation, or labeling every Islamic movement as somehow tied to violence and terrorism.

If our intelligence finds there were plans or violent elements that deliberately encouraged or escalated violence, we need to know this and pressure the Egyptian and Libyan governments to punish the guilty. To the extent the violence has spontaneous elements, we need to fully understand the forces at work and seek to deal with them.

Second, we must not make overreaction part of the election campaign. It may be the duty of the opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America’s strategic interests, lasting relations with key nations in the Middle East, or somehow making this an issue that puts Christian against Muslim or the West against the Arab world.

This is precisely the goal of those violent Islamic extremists that are our real enemies. They want this polarization. They want to make this as broad a conflict between religions and cultures as possible in order to persuade Muslims and Arabs that they face an American or Christian attack. They want the kind of overreaction that discredits secular and moderate Islamic governments in the Arab world and other Muslim states. It will scarcely serve the memory of our diplomats to be trapped into courses of action that the serve the goals of an extreme minority like the few that that are active in al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Third, we need to remember that this is a clash within a religion and a civilization and not a struggle between Christians and Muslims or the West and the Arab world. It is natural to focus on our own casualties, and they are all too real. It is clear from our studies of terrorism since 9/11, and from the database of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), that the number of acts of terrorism among Muslims and the number of casualties that result is several orders of magnitude higher than the casualties outside the Muslim world.

We in the United States and the West are marginal targets of opportunity in the struggle between Muslim extremists and secular and moderate Islamic governments. The fact remains that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common core set of values, and the last thing we need is to ignore these common values and focus on anger and revenge in ways that will prevent us from working with our natural allies in the Arab and Muslim world.

Fourth, we must not lose sight of our enduring strategic interests. Libya and Egypt are critical nations in the upheavals in the Arab and Islamic world. At the same time, both are years away from stability and forging the new structure of government, social order, and economics necessary to deal with the underlying problems that caused political change in each country.

The United States can only serves its interests if it understands that it may well face a decade of diplomacy and aid efforts in which it must constantly seek to help the nations caught up in these political upheavals deal with these problems, create functioning democracies, improve their governance, and make economic reform.

The “Arab spring” is already close to entering its second year (it began on December 18, 2010), and there is no way to predict when it will end or how many further upheavals will take place. Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen are additional states that are already in play and other nations are sure to follow. We in the West need to remember that the “European spring” that began with the French Revolution (or 1848 depending on your choice of historians) triggered upheavals that lasted until at least 1914 and did not end in anything approaching stability.

Finally, we must accept the fact that our diplomats need to take risks and others will fall. Dealing with the political upheavals and violence that are part of this process of change means taking risks and taking casualties. We may be able to improve some aspects of warning and protection of our diplomats, but we already have far too much of a fortress mentality and far too many diplomats that stay in the embassies or face security regulations that prevent them from being effective.

Like our military, our diplomats must be prepared and authorized to “work outside the wire.” We cannot deal with cases like Egypt or Libya without positive and constantly proactive diplomacy. We must be willing to work directly with new governments and with the full range of secular, Islamic, other religious parties. We must accept the fact that there will be violence in many cases, and some of it will be directed against the United States. As the tragedy in Libya has shown, diplomacy is a dangerous business, and it should be.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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