It’s all well and good to condemn the film clippings that precipitated the attacks—I myself find them noxious—but neither anger at United States policy nor at the insensitivity or insults of one’s speech ever excuses an attack on an embassy or diplomatic personnel. Diplomats are meant to be representatives and problem-solvers stationed abroad for the convenience of both the United States and the host government; they are not meant to be hostages against which to retaliate.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are eulogizing the slain American ambassador and staff members, as they should. The question of what comes next is trickier.
Libya has a weak government which has apologized but has struggled to defeat the militias and extremists behind yesterday’s attack in Benghazi. The Egyptian situation is different, as the Egyptian government is stronger and has a greater mandate. It also has not, to my knowledge, unreservedly apologized for the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
It is important that the United States not show weakness in the face of fire. The State Department should not withdraw its diplomats from Benghazi but should rather redouble them and their protection. The last U.S. ambassador slain in duty is, I believe, Adolph “Spike” Dubs in Kabul in 1979 (if one does not count the 1988 plane crash—likely caused by sabotage or a bomb–which killed Ambassador Arnold Raphael and the president of Pakistan. I had the opportunity to chat with a junior officer serving under Dubs who was present during the botched rescue attempt. Once the building was stormed, he rushed forward with the medical team to the room where the ambassador had been held. When they were around the corner, they heard four more gunshots and the assailants running away: Dubs and three guards lay dead. The bullets recovered from their bodies did not match those used by the hostage-takers or the Afghan SWAT team. The KGB observers did not submit their ammunition for ballistics tests but promised to get back to President Carter. They never did, of course; we did not replace our ambassador but rather scampered away—and the Soviets invaded, believing the United States did not have the wherewithal to defend our own.
When controversy erupted in 2005 about whether newly-elected Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among the hostage-takers at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, focus on that single question was myopic. The greater revelation from that episode for me was that, more than a quarter-century after those events, the CIA had not gone through every photo of the hostage-takers to identify them. The Libyan government may not yet be able to crackdown, but it is essential that we pulse whatever resources we have to talk to informants and identify the perpetrators. If the Libyan government is unable to arrest them and turn them over to the United States, they should become Predator fodder. Doing nothing would be equivalent to declaring open season on U.S. diplomats around the world.
Egypt is a different story. If there is one lesson from more than three decades of our dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is that governments will exploit plausible deniability unless we hold them fully accountable. If President Mohamed Morsi wants a single dime of American aid, he should arrest every single Egyptian who violated the embassy walls. Remember, when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979, it was actually the second attack on the embassy. A few months earlier, Iranians had violated the embassy grounds and Carter administration inaction had convinced them that they could get away with it again. There can be no excuses, nor should President Obama or the Congress accept any.
Another issue we must face is the cost of leading from behind. While members of both President Obama’s team and some among Governor Romney’s advisers celebrate our alliance with Qatar, the fact is that tiny Qatar funds the most radical elements in both Egypt and Libya, elements which now very well may be responsible for the death of American diplomats.
The final issue we must still address, alas, eleven years after 9/11 is what motivates terrorism. It may be tempting to look toward grievance. That may be comforting because, then, if we address the grievance then the terrorism would go away. Unfortunately, that is a false hypothesis, as naïve as it is deadly. It is time to recognize that the problem with Islamist-motivated terrorism has far less to do with grievance and far more to do with ideology. Until we address that we are confronted with an uncompromising, Manichaean ideology, we are condemning ourselves to suffer far more casualties in the future.