Foreign Policy Blogs

The Candidates and the Attack in Benghazi

The American flag at half mast on the roof of the White House. Source: AP

The American flag at half mast on the roof of the White House. Source: AP

The protest and violence associated with a film highly offensive to Islam is sure to play an outsized role in foreign policy discussions for the rest of the presidential race. Mitt Romney’s initial reaction to the Obama administration’s handling of unfolding events—and the backlash against Romney that this criticism generated—was a topic of frequent, well-covered discussion last week.

Remarking on the unrest, Mitt Romney made another point that embodies themes that could play an important part in the presidential debates. As the New York Times’ “The Caucus” blog reported last week:

Speaking to a modest-sized crowd in Northern Virginia on Thursday, Mitt Romney sought to move beyond his criticism of President Obama’s response to the turmoil in Libya and Egypt and instead broadly paint the president as weak on foreign policy.

“As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events. And a strong America, by the way, depends on a strong military,” Mr. Romney said at an outdoor rally here. “We have to have a military second to none and that’s so strong no one would ever think of testing it.”

“This president has done something I find very hard to understand,” Mr. Romney said. “Ever since F.D.R., we’ve had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once. And he’s saying, ‘No we’re going to cut that back to only one conflict.’ And so he’s put in place cuts of almost a trillion dollars, with his budget cuts and the sequestration cuts we’ll have almost a trillion dollars of cuts to our military.”

He added: “If I’m president of the United States we will restore our military commitment and keep America the strongest military in the world.”

These comments highlight two important campaign issues: President Obama’s foreign policy track record and the proposed military budget cuts. As I’ve touched on previously, Obama’s foreign policy track record is so far an asset to him in this election. Americans largely support the Obama administration’s drone policy, and of course, the death of Osama bin Laden is perceived as a major success.

The apparent motive (one should note that this is still a breaking story) behind the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens was the death of an al Qaeda leader killed by a U.S. drone attack. On the Ed Show last week, liberal commentator Ezra Klein discussed the scope of the drone program in the context of Mitt Romney’s comment on how his administration, in contrast to the Obama administration, would approach the matter: “Number three is resolve in our might. That in those rare circumstances, those rare circumstances where we decide it’s essential for us to apply military might, that we do so with overwhelming force.”

As Klein said,

And we now think [the drone strikes are] part of what led to the attacks in Benghazi, which is not to say it’s the wrong thing to do. That’s a more complicated question. But it is to say that the idea that more assertive application of American power will lead to less violence against America is a hard idea to find evidence for in recent history.

Like Klein, I’m not stating the possible connection between the drone program and the attacks in Libya as an argument for or against drones, but rather to explain that the Obama administration has not shied away from military force in the way that Romney suggests. (It is important to note that the circumstances surrounding the attack in Libya are still being explored, but the general point about drones stands regardless).

The military budget cuts are another area of debate. Right now, the U.S. is facing two kinds of budget cuts: planned and potentially forced. The planned budget cuts were proposed by the Department of Defense earlier this year, and naturally, generated policy debate. At the time, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed Congress, saying, “It was this Congress that mandated, on a bipartisan basis on all sides of the issue, that we reduce the defense budget, and we need your partnership to do this in a manner that preserves the strongest military in the world. This will be a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or action.”

However, another set of budget cuts,  undesirable by many accounts, will take place if the looming sequestration, or “fiscal cliff,” comes into effect. Panetta and others have argued that the cuts will be deeply deleterious to the military. As CNN paraphrased and quoted Panetta: “…sequestration makes automatic and equally distributed cuts across Department of Defense accounts, using a ‘meat-ax’ approach.” As campaigning goes forward, I’m concerned that these two kinds of defense cuts will become conflated—unintentionally or otherwise—in debate, as it has recently.

Putting aside the question of the al Qaeda-related attack in Libya, and looking at widespread protest around the region, I think that much of it is more about law and order, and domestic and religious dynamics within countries, than it about U.S. policy. Nevertheless, at least in the short term, these protests alter the foreign policy landscape in which the United States operates. Consequently, I think it is  important to look to the candidates’ reactions to and perceptions of the issues and how the candidates causally link these events to U.S. policy.

In the long term, I’ll remember the past week’s unrest for its human cost and the tragic loss of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. I end on forward-looking words from Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa A.G. Abushagur:

If we move forward as a nation with the same courage and optimism that sparked our revolution, the same optimism and courage that Chris Stevens embodied throughout his service in Libya, there are no obstacles we cannot overcome.

Inspired by the memory of our friend and our hopes for future generations, we remain committed to the cause of freedom, democracy and opportunity.




Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.