After a year of confusion and partisan political fighting, a comprehensive report this week by the New York Times brings some clarity to what was really behind the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. The account is the most exhaustive made public to date, and it should prod U.S. lawmakers to stop pointing fingers based on false assumptions and start fixing the real holes in intelligence and diplomacy that still threaten America's national interests.
The monthslong investigation by the New York Times, which drew on diplomatic cables and dozens of interviews with Libyans who had direct knowledge of the attack, turned up no evidence that al-Qaida or other international terror groups had any role in the assault. Rather, the newspaper found the attack was led by fighters loyal to several militant groups that had received support from NATO air power in the rebels' successful uprising against former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
The findings refute the Republican claims that the Obama administration ignored an obvious and growing threat from al-Qaida, clearing the way for an attack on the U.S. outpost in that lawless city that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador in Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. And while it at least partially substantiates the administration's initial claim that an American-made, anti-Islam video incited the violence, the report raises new and serious questions about how prepared the U.S. contingent in Libya was and how ably officials there and in Washington read and reacted to events on the ground.
The report paints a sobering picture of shaky American influence in a volatile part of the world, and the ongoing dilemma the United States is struggling with after a decade of war in deciding how far to go in promoting global security and human rights. U.S. diplomats in Libya continued their efforts to bring the anti-Gadhafi rebels into the Western fold, even after militant leaders warned Washington that there was no honeymoon in exchange for NATO's military assistance. And the New York Times report exposed a huge gap between the U.S. diplomatic goals in post-Gadhafi Libya and the intelligence capabilities that were and remain necessary to reach those goals.
The lessons for lawmakers are many and mixed. The obsession with placing blame on a single cause for Benghazi reflects not only crass politics by all sides but the larger danger of looking at Islamic extremism in a singular dimension. The same alliances of convenience the West had with the rebels in Libya are playing out now in Syria. The United States should be realistic about its power and plan strategically, and the surest way to make that happen is to improve our intelligence-gathering operations. Congress should explore whether this is best pursued by the administration vacuuming up huge amounts of digital data or whether it needs the more traditional resources of eyes and ears on the street.
The attack in Libya was tragic, and its root causes were more varied and less obvious than either Democrats or Republicans in Washington assert. The challenge now is to learn from it so that America's front line is not again taken down by those we helped and considered friends who are not reliable allies when the shooting starts.