On Libya, Biden Let Ryan Get Away with Murder (Smith)

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Responses | Print |

20 Responses

    • Biden didn’t say he voted against the wars. He said he voted against funding them “on a credit card,” which he did, repeatedly.

      • I dont know why all these pundits keep saying it sounded like he did not support the wars. They were talking about fiscal issues, he brought the credit card up regarding their fiscal irresponsibility.

  1. No doubt Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans that were murdered that September 11th were great people, and excellent representatives of our nation. The weak attempt by the democrats to politicize this by a budget cut that 1) Doesn’t take affect until 2013, and 2) Was passed with many democrat votes as well as republican, shows more of the blame game policy that this administration does so often. The real issue is accountability. Why did they tell outright lies about the attack even a week afterwards when in fact they new it was a terror attack within a day?

    • Good thing you aren’t politicizing this event. Nobody wants to see it politicized…oh, wait, I just read the second half of your comment.

    • People appear to be getting more subtle at packaging the troll torpedoes.

      I’ve got no particular personal affection for the rulers’ policies and behaviors, the consistent ones that over a couple of centuries have taken “us” from George Washington, the honorable statesman, through Eisenhower the general who warned us about his own extended MICC “family,” to Reagan and the Bush League and Clintons then and now and the Current Occupant, the latter stages being more and more corporate and bureaucratized and insensitive and inflexible and purblind, stumbling on the road to the usual decline and fall.

      But the folks you pray for, Hype, will take us even faster down the Yellow Brick Road to dissolution. Your guys tell outright lies of the Double-Whopper-with-Cheese variety and scale, but all of the Powers that Be live in a bouillabaisse of dishonesty and dishonor and perversions cloaked rhetorically in the “patriotic” patois of “National Interest. But it seems more likely that the Dems will throw an occasional bone to us dogs down on the floor than the Reds (remember when those same dorks would rather have been “dead than Red?) who are pretty much all about vacuuming up even the scraps and crumbs, starving out the rest of us in pursuit of idiot dreams of hegemony…

  2. Thank you so much, Mr. Smith, for your enlight. It’s one of the very few things I’ve read that helped me understand what a treasure we had in Chris Stevens, particularly your words stating his belief in Libya’s positive outcome “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.”

  3. Let’s get this straight: It is a GOOD thing that (if, these things turn out to be ephemeral…) the Libyan government-people are currently “relatively friendly” toward the totally Zionist-dominated, Israel First United States government and (markedly submissive) people?

    • I think the willful ignorance of Americans about the colonial policies of the Israeli regime is inexcusable. However, part of the reason Americans continue to double down on blind support for Israel is because they see Israel as the US’s only friend in a hostile region. It’s my hope that if Americans see some friendliness from the Muslim/Arab world, then maybe they’ll start to show some friendliness in return.

  4. This just in:

    There is not a single democratically-elected government in the Arab world that the Republicans approve of. There is not a single Arab population whom Republicans do not regard as an existential threat to Western civilization, unless they are thoroughly oppressed by some king, sheikh or prince.

    Inescapable conclusion: all Arabs are evil enemies who must be kept under our totally subservient tyrants at all costs. Has anyone heard a single thing from conservatives that contradicts this? At all?

    Yet they never have to state exactly how Romney will exercise a greater degree of hostility towards Arabs than Obama does.

    • Has anyone heard a single thing from conservatives that contradicts this? At all?

      Well, there was a brief period when they pretended to support democracy in the Arab world, from about 2003-2007. Remember the purple fingers at the State of the Union speech?

      Frankly, I like it better this way. The transparent dishonesty was nauseating.

  5. Driving the Islamist militias out of Bengazi is but one example of people in North Africa resisting militant Islam. In Tahrir Square, Egypt, secularists brawled with Morsi supporters. In northern Mali, there have been protests against the dangerous Islamists. The Tauregs who fought for Gaddafi, then fled to Mali and fought for independence, had their revolution hijacked by Islamists, and now want to be part of a force that fights the theocratic muslims.

  6. I find this post rather political in nature, rather that than your customary emphasis on your expertise in Middle Eastern affairs.

    Of particular note is the use of the phrase ‘presumably accurate’ in this sentence: ‘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.’

    As I commented to the author you link to in that sentence; there is ample reason to conclude, or at least highly suspect, based on accounts from senior administration sources, that the administration knew on day one that the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack. As such, you give Biden a pass where none was warranted.

    More importantly, why have you chosen to be a ‘blatant’ partisan, (sympathetic though I may be in your politics) rather than maintaining your professional integrity as an expert on the Middle East.

  7. One further note. The accuracy or outright falsehoods promulgated by right-wing media outlets is irrelevant to the question of the truthfulness of the administration’s public statements. The issue at hand is whether Susan Rice, and other administration officials spoke with due frankness when publicly discussing the events of that day.

    To varying degrees, the media on the left and on the right will spin the story based on their own biases. That is a subject for another discussion.

  8. correction: I assumed that Juan Cole wrote this piece. Though I stand by my over-all concerns, I ought to be a bit more careful to whom I am addressing.

  9. As usual, a great text and a very sharp analysis, Chris.

    You are, however, mistaken to assume that anything can be “particularly damning for Paul Ryan because” of a lack of “evidence”. Much of his political popularity hinges on his eschewing facts and evidence.

    More to the point, the Foreign Policy philosophy espoused by Republicans (as demonstrated by Bush 43 and hinted at by Romney) mostly ignore crucial lessons of historical facts of the past 60 years, so it’s reasonable to assume that “evidence” is not a big concern there…

  10. Dear Chris,

    thank you for exposing some of the extreme misinformation from conservative sources about the attack in Benghazi. Perhaps you can also shed some light on the following two issues:

    (1) What was the status of the building where the attack happened? I have seen it be referred to as embassy or as consulate, but according to the Stae Department website, there are no consular services in Libya except in Tripoli. Could it be that the building was just a minor mission, it has been suggested that it was mostly for CIA activities tracking the flow of weapons.

    (2) You note the following abot the recent elections for Prime Minister: “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.”
    Despite being an “American-educated technocrat”, the winner of the run-off election then proceeded to stack his cabinet with Islamists and was subsequently dismissed by the General National Congress. Can you shed some light on why the Prime Minister felt compelled to give so much power to the Islamists, whether this indicates a stalemate between secularist and Islamist forces and how this jives with your description of the real Libya.

    Best regards,


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