Fact-Check: Is Obama’s Foreign Policy “Unraveling”?
by Christopher C. Smith
In Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate, Paul Ryan claimed that the recent terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya represented the “unraveling” of the administration’s foreign policy, which is making the world “more chaotic” and Americans “less safe.”
To his credit, Biden correctly pointed out that Ryan and other Congressional Republicans had voted to cut funding for embassy security, and limited funding was part of the State Department’s calculus when it denied the Benghazi consulate’s security requests. Biden also repeated the administration’s rhetorically weak, but presumably accurate defense of its post-attack narrative of events: the administration could only report information as fast as the intelligence community provided it.
Beyond this elementary defense, however, Biden missed a golden opportunity to go on the attack. Republicans, it turns out, weren’t much more successful than Democrats at getting their narrative straight in the aftermath of the consulate’s destruction. In a piece chiding the administration for its inaccurate narrative, Sean Hannity claimed the body of Ambassador Chris Stevens had been “found by looters and later dragged through the streets of Benghazi.” The conservative Washington Times was even more inflammatory, with a report that Stevens had been raped before he was murdered. Neither of these claims was true.
The claim that Stevens was raped turned out to be a complete fabrication, which the Times hadn’t bothered to source-check and later reluctantly withdrew. As for Hannity’s clip, it didn’t show Libyans abusing Stevens, but rather checking his pulse. According to CNN’s translation of another video, the Libyans who pulled Stevens from the burned-out consulate rejoiced to find that he was still alive. Far from dragging him through the streets, the CNN video indicates that the Libyans carried Stevens to the hospital. He was still alive on arrival there, and a Libyan doctor attempted unsuccessfully to resuscitate him for nearly an hour. To put it simply, certain politically conservative media outlets allowed racist assumptions about Muslims to distort their narratives of events.
This is particularly damning for Paul Ryan because his only evidence that Obama’s foreign policy is “unraveling” was “what we are watching on our TV screens.” I shudder to think that US foreign policy might be determined by what Romney and Ryan see on TV. A more balanced assessment of events in Libya suggests that if this is a commentary on Obama’s foreign policy, it’s an extremely positive one. Despite the endlessly-looped news footage of our bombed-out embassy, the situation in Libya is very hopeful, overall.
Far from an anti-American terrorist state, post-revolution Libya has turned out to be a surprisingly friendly one. According to Gallup, approval of US leadership jumped from thirty percent in pre-revolution Libya to fifty-four percent by 2012, “among the highest approval Gallup has ever recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region, outside of Israel.” Another post-revolution poll showed the United States with a ninety-percent approval rating in Eastern Libya, compared to just twenty-eight percent for the Salafists and thirty-one for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The scenario of a Libya ruled by Islamist radicals has also failed to materialize. The extraordinary President of Libya’s General National Congress, Mohammed Magarief, is a liberal academic who spent the last few decades in European exile. According to Al Jazeera, Magarief’s party promotes “democratic government with constitutional guarantees, free and fair elections, free press, separation of powers, non-discriminatory rule of law, gender equality, multi-partyism, sustainable development, and a realistic democratic road-map that benefits from . . . Nelson Mandela’s democratisation experience.” Similarly extraordinary are the two American-educated technocrats who faced off in Libya’s largely-overlooked runoff election for prime minister the day after the consulate attack. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate didn’t even qualify, having in the general election placed a distant third.
The real Libya was revealed not in the consulate attack itself, but in the country’s response to it. Although they retreated before the militants’ overwhelming numbers during the initial attack, Libyan security forces were later reportedly instrumental in liberating the besieged embassy compound and evacuating the American personnel. When the crisis was over, it was roundly condemned by the Libyan government and the country’s top cleric, who issued a fatwa damning the culprits to hell. At a more popular level, there were pro-American demonstrations on the streets of Benghazi, and “sorry” became a trending topic among Libyans on Twitter. As of September 28, Muslims from 110 countries—including many from Libya—had sent a total of 7,000 condolence letters to the slain ambassador’s family.
Even more stunning were the events of September 22. In a pre-planned protest, the citizens of Benghazi marched 30,000 strong, calling for Islamist militias to be disbanded and incorporated into the national army. Some of the protesters carried banners memorializing Chris Stevens and chanted pro-American slogans. At the end of their march, the protesters ransacked the headquarters of the militias responsible for the consulate attack and drove them out of town. In a parallel action, the Libyan government redoubled its ongoing drive to clear militias from Tripoli. The Libya Herald attributed this action in part to the death of Ambassador Stevens, who was beloved by Libyans and has become something of a martyr for law and order. Clearly Stevens did not die in vain. His sacrifice may have accomplished more for the future of Libya than Romney’s proposed two trillion-dollar increase in military spending ever could.
In the next presidential debate, Mitt Romney will undoubtedly continue the Republican refrain that the Obama administration failed to address the concerns about Libya’s security situation that Chris Stevens expressed prior to the consulate attack. If so, Obama should take the opportunity to highlight some of Stevens’s other overlooked thoughts and attitudes, such as his stated belief (in Foreign Policy) that Libya would become a free, moderate, democratic, and relatively friendly country, in large part due to “having received the right measure of international help” from the Obama administration: “enough to win their friendship, but not so much as to deny them ownership of their revolution.” It is a shame that in the artificial controversies about Stevens’s death, his own vision has almost never been referenced. Stevens’s murder does not mean his dream has failed. To the contrary, Libyans’ reactions to the tragedy of his death were a vindication of that dream.
And that’s what Joe Biden should have shared with the American people during the vice-presidential debate. Chris Stevens had a dream, and there was no place in it for Islamophobic militarism.
Christopher C. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Religions in North America at Claremont Graduate University. In addition to his academic work on Mormonism, he has done a forthcoming statistical study of American Islamophobia.