Top Ten GOP Myths about Libya that Sank Susan Rice

The charge against US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was led by a handful of Republican senators and congressmen, and based on the alleged deficiencies of her account of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11. She withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state on Thursday. The GOP narrative of Benghazi and of Libya in general, however, bears no relationship to reality. This was pure politics, beginning as an attempt to hurt the Obama administration’s reputation for being good on defense issues, and then turning into sour grapes once Mitt Romney lost the election.

1. Benghazi, a city of over a million, is not dominated by “al-Qaeda,” contrary to what Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has repeatedly said or implied. The city had successful municipal elections in May, just before I got there. The number one vote-getter was a woman professor of statistics at the university. While political Islam is a force in Benghazi, only some relatively small groups are militant, and it has to compete with nationalist, tribal and regional ideological currents. In Libya’s parliamentary elections of July, 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood did very poorly and nationalists came to power. Women won 20% of the seats! The elected Speaker of Parliament, Muhammad Magarief, called for a secular constitution for Libya and a separation of religion and state.

2. Contrary to repeated assertions that it was obvious that terrorist groups were rampaging around in the city, members of the Benghazi municipal council told then US ambassador Chris Stevens that security in the city was improving in summer, 2012.

In fact, one Senator John McCain said during a visit to Libya last February, ““We are very happy to be back here in Libya and to note the enormous progress and changes made in the past few months… We know that many challenges lie ahead… but we are encouraged by what we have seen.” Doesn’t sound to me like McCain was running around like Chicken Little warning that the sky was about to fall on US diplomats there. Want to know who else came along on that trip? Lindsey Graham, who likewise didn’t issue any dire warnings in its aftermath.

3. Contrary to the “Libya-is-riddled-with-al-Qaeda” meme of the GOP politicians, there is a strong civil society and tribal opposition to fundamentalist militias in Benghazi, of which Amb. Chris Stevens was well aware. Tripoli-based journalist Abd-al-Sattar Hatitah explained in the pages of the pan-Arab London daily al-Sharq al-Awsat [Sept. 30, 2012, trans. USG Open Source Center]:

“It appears that the simple rule Benghazi’s people thought of applying was based on other experiences in which the radical Islamists or militants in general managed to grow, prosper, and expand by seeking protection from the tribes, as happened in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But the civil movements which became very active [in Benghazi] after the fall of Al-Qadhafi’s regime were the ones that formed alliances this time with the tribes, the notables, wise men councils, and civil society figures against the militants. This is akin to the “Sahwat” in Iraq. The alliance managed to expel the brigades from the town and encouraged the nascent Libyan authorities to tighten their restrictions on all armed manifestations.

Abd-al-Hamid Ibrahim Bu al-Shunaybat al-Aquri, a member of the committee of wise men and shura in Libya and a popular leader in Benghazi, said that “in the week preceding the Benghazi events [of September 11], the popular and security leaders met in the eastern area of the country, from the town of Imsa’id in the east to Ajdabiya in the west. They were all tribal notables, members of wise men councils in the eastern region, and the revolutionary field commanders during the days of the liberation, not the commanders of the [fundamentalist informal] brigades.”

He adds that the meeting was also attended by representatives from the army chiefs-of-staff and the Interior Ministry as well as a number of members from the National Congress (parliament). “All civil society organizations also took part with us. Everybody consented to issuing the statement against the presence of the [fundamentalist] brigades and we distributed 3,000 copies. “

This was around September 3. After the attack on the US consulate, tens of thousands of people in Benghazi demonstrated against the violence and in favor of the US and Stevens. Then they attempted to sweep the fundamentalist militias from the city.

4. Al-Qaeda is not for the most part even a “thing” in Libya. The only formal al-Qaeda affiliate in the region is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is not a Libyan but an Algerian organization. Just calling all Salafi groups “al-Qaeda” is propaganda. They have to swear fealty to Ayman al-Zawahiri (or in the past, Usama Bin Laden) to be al-Qaeda. The main al-Qaeda connection in Benghazi is to Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed in northern Pakistan by a US drone strike in June. Some of his close relatives in Benghazi may have been angry about this (depending on how well they liked him), but they are not known to form a formal al-Qaeda cell. There are also young men from Dirna in the Benghazi area, some of whom fought against the US in Iraq. Their numbers are not large and, again, they don’t have al-Zawahiri’s phone number on auto-dial. Sen. McCain was a big supporter of the US intervention in Libya and seems to have been all right with Abdul Hakim Belhadj being his ally, even though in the zeroes Belhadj would have been labeled ‘al-Qaeda.’

5. Ansar al-Sharia (Helpers of Islamic Law) is just an informal grouping of a few hundred hard line fundamentalists in Benghazi, and may be a code word to refer to several small organizations. There are no known operational links between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda. It is a local thing in Benghazi.

6. Leaders of Ansar al-Sharia have denied that they directed their organization to attack the US consulate and have condemned the attack.

7. Lindsey Graham and others point to instances of political violence this past summer in Benghazi as obvious harbingers of the September 11 consulate attack. But it was a tiny fringe group, the Omar Abdel Rahman Brigades, that claimed responsibility for setting off a small pipe bomb in front of the gate of the US consulate last June. This is what the US statement said last June:

“There was an attack late last night on the United States office in Benghazi,” a US embassy official said, adding that only the gate was damaged and no one was hurt. The diplomat said a homemade bomb had been used in the attack on the office, set up after the 2011 uprising against Muammar Qadhafi and kept open to support the democratic transition “

You’d have to be a real scaredy cat to pack up and leave because of a thing like that, which is what Sen. Graham keeps saying should have been the response. Likewise the same small cell was responsible for attacks on the office of the Red Cross and on a convoy of the British consulate, which injured a consular employ. Security isn’t all that great in Benghazi, though actually I suspect the criminal murder rate is much lower than in any major American city. I walked around freely in Benghazi in early June, and couldn’t have disguised my being a Westerner if I had wanted to, and nobody looked at me sideways. A pipe bomb and a shooting, neither of them fatal, did not stand out as dire in a city full of armed militias, most of them grateful to the US and Britain for their help in the revolution. You can understand why the Red Cross packed it in after a couple of attacks, but the US government is not the Red Cross.

8. The GOP figures keep saying that it was obvious that there was no demonstration at the Benghazi consulate against the so-called “film,” the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ that attacked the Prophet Muhammad. But in fact Libyan security officials repeatedly told wire services on September 12 that there was such a demonstration, and that the attack issued from those quarters. An American resident in Benghazi at that time confirms that there were such demonstrations that day. The secular-minded revolutionary militia that guarded the US consulate for the Libyan government kept the demonstrations far enough away from the consulate gates that they would not have shown up in security videos.

9. The GOP senators keep complaining about President Obama’s “leadership” on the Benghazi issue. But they know very well that presidents don’t typically get involved in things like consular requests for guards. Moreover, the consulate was amazingly well-guarded, not only by a revolutionary militia that did in fact rescue dozens of consular employees after the rpg fire came in, but by some 40 CIA operatives, many of them ex-special forces, in a nearby safe house. These were viewed by consular officials as “the cavalry.”

10. Susan Rice had nothing whatsoever to do with Libya, had no special knowledge of the situation in Benghazi, and she briefed the talking points she was given by the CIA in the aftermath.

Whether Susan Rice would have made a good secretary of state or not, it is a shame that the GOP Fantasy Machine should have attempted to harm her reputation for probity over the Libya situation. In fact, almost everything the GOP senators and congressmen have alleged about the situation in Benghazi is factually incorrect and easily shown to be so.

21 Responses

  1. Prof Cole – What do you make of the idea that the attack was not on a “consulate” but on a “mission” that housed a CIA base where local “terrorists” were being held and “interrogated”? And that the attack was retaliation for the drone killing of the leader of one of the Islamic groups some months earlier?

    • Terrorists were not being “held and interrogated” by the CIA in Benghazi. This is more of the conspiratorial cant that passes for “information” among some groups.

        • Have you asked that question of any of the people offering the wholly-unsupported accusation?

          Or only those noting that it is wholly unsupported?

        • It’s unsupported, but you could say that about any reasonable explanation for what happened. Since when does security leave an ambassador behind? What were all the those people who were evacuated doing there?
          Here is a definition of “consulate:”
          Consulates (and their chief diplomat, the consul) handle minor diplomatic issues like issuing visas, aiding in trade relationships, and taking care of migrants, tourists, and expatriates.
          Was any of that really going on in Benghazi?
          While we don’t know what was going on at the consulate or CIA annex (whatever that is), it wasn’t likely dealing with lost tourists. So until the US Gov’t explains (likely never) people will necessarily form their opinions with speculation.

        • Conspiratorial perhaps. Plausible? Absolutely! If true, the CIA will certainly never admit publicly to it. The CIA undoubtedly never wanted released the contents of a treasure trove of documents that eventually saw the light of day “when rebel forces overtook Tripoli in August 2011.” Thanks to Human Rights Watch, “…interviews with 14 former detainees now residing freely in post-Gaddafi Libya and information contained in Libyan government files discovered abandoned immediately after Gaddafi’s fall (the “Tripoli Documents”) were released in a 154 page report: It provides detailed evidence of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees in US custody, including a credible account of “waterboarding,” and a similar account of water abuse that brings the victim close to suffocation. Both types of abuse amount to torture. The allegations cast serious doubts on prior assertions from US government officials that only three people were waterboarded in US custody. They also reflect just how little the public still knows about what went on in the US secret detention program. Sure Benghazi isn’t mentioned since all of this happened under the Bush administration. Are we to believe all of this ceased to occur under Obama? I sincerely doubt it. Call me a conspiracy theorist, if you want. But I wasn’t born yesterday.

  2. “factually incorrect and easily shown to be so.”

    And just how does that make any difference in anything? The Village is only connected to the real world by the conduits that sluice in cubic money from us taxpayers and all, and the one-way mirrors that shine the Great Policy Decisions and the Fabrications That Conceal Them into the dazzled eyes of most of the rest of us.

  3. I have two points that perhaps you could address: First of all, there is the question of the alleged CIA “annex” compound to the Benghazi consulate and speculation that this was probably the reason why it was attacked (reference). That, coupled with the following assertion points to an astonishing degree of naïveté among US policy makers:
    Not only did the US deliver Gaddafi to his enemies on a silver platter but it seems the CIA tortured many of them first.

    • Are you actually citing a reference from a posting by someone identified as “b” on November 12, at a blog entitled “Moon Over Alabama: Where Barflies Get Together”? If this is your idea of credible evidence, then I have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you. That citation and sourcing for information would not rate a grade of “D-” on a high school sophomore composition paper.

      • I cited it because of convenience and because I was in a rush. It contains links which substantiate the argument (And if you are as capable of using Google as you apparently are of making ad hominem remarks, you just might find other corroborations to your liking).

        • Joe from Lowell: As I said in my first post, it is speculation. Jesus!, can’t you people read!? And contrary to what you incredulous naysayers are claiming, it is entirely plausible speculation given the secretive history of the CIA. How many examples examples would you like?

  4. Rice’s statements on Benghazi were distorted many times in different and sometimes partisan ways, that’s true. It doesn’t then follow that Rice was being honest or forthcoming in her well-prepared public statements, and I don’t see how you arrive at this:

    10. Susan Rice had nothing whatsoever to do with Libya, had no special knowledge of the situation in Benghazi, and she briefed the talking points she was given by the CIA in the aftermath. ???

    Every account of the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya maintains that Secretary Clinton, along with Susan Rice and Samantha Power were the key advocates for US participation. Further, given Rice’s long career in African affairs as well as her desired transition to be the next Sec’y of State, why would you make the assertion that she had “no special knowledge?” The FBI interviews of survivors evacuated to Germany were already done, why wouldn’t she know what those eyewitnesses had to say? Lastly, given James Risen’s reporting on US support for arming Libyan rebels,
    link to nytimes.com
    Rice’s statements of September 16: “Opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya, and it escalated into a much more violent episode.”
    looks very much like diplomatic doublespeak.

    • I read Cole’s statement to mean that Rice had nothing to do with the management of facilities in Libya, nor oversight of the consulate where Stevens was killed. The charge against her was negligence in providing security there, but she had nothing to do with that.

  5. Ok, we all know Republicans are full of it. It’s a shame you had to take the time to rebut their garbage.

    But what about the legit critiques of her potential appointment?

    Re: Rwanda/Congo (protecting Rwanda (a recent ally) from war crimes abuses; Re: Not having an independent power base in the administration?

  6. “Susan Rice had nothing whatsoever to do with Libya…”
    Fine, but she climbed the policy nomenklatura ladder as a selfproclaimed expert on tropical Africa, whereas her extensive official record there — on Nigeria, Congo/Rwanda, Ethiopia etc. — is nothing for any progressive person to defend. Establishment connections plus fierce opportunism can’t substitute for actual knowledge of the world plus a sense of justice. The latter two qualities are the hallmarks of Informed Comment in Juan Cole’s own area of expertise, but Republican sliminess in itself does not amount to an argument in _favor_ of Susan Rice.

  7. I agree with you in regards to Susan Rice story and it being pure politics. When something is “pure politics” with a clearly set mission aimed at one side/GOP discrediting the other side (Obama Administration), then anything goes, and the “relationship to reality” is a none issue. The fact that the reality can be turned on its head by the McCain(s) and Graham (s) of the GOP world is a given.
    Having said that,I take your 10 point analysis at its face value, with exception of point #8, debating whether or not there was a demonstration.
    The fact that in the age of internet “revolutions,” and Twitter “Uprisings” of today, where there would surely be the preponderances of videos, your argument creates many questions, instead of clearing some stuff.
    You state; “The GOP figures keep saying that there was no demonstration at the Benghazi consulate against the so-called film” and “But in fact Libyan security officials repeatedly told wire services that there was such a demonstration,” and then the debate comes down to “An American resident in Benghazi at that time confirms that there were such demonstrations that day” is such a pedestrian way to either confirm or reject the existence of demonstration.
    And then concluding that the “demonstration” was kept far away and out of range of security camera by the secular-minded revolutionary militia who guarded the US consulate,hence no video to confirm/deny is the mother of all the ad hocs and red herrings and begs for a huge exclamation mark.
    As if there was only one video camera in the whole of Benghazi that could be trusted, to justify the existence of demonstration, and that one camera was located at the security gate of US Consulate and alas out of range of demonstration!!
    I am not sure if that is what you were trying to argue in #8, that is my take of what you wrote, as it does not fit with your trademark (strong argument), but I suppose 1/10 is still an A :)

    • The point isn’t that the claim about there being a protest was true; the point is that there was every reason for Susan Rice, and the administration as a whole, to believe it was true when they said so. Al Jazeera was reporting it as a protest gone bad, there had been protests gone bad in several different countries at the time, and there were people on the ground reporting it as a protest. Were they right? It doesn’t seem so knowing what we know now, but in the days after the attack, when the administration was reporting it that way, they had every reason to believe it was true.

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