Skip to main content

In N. Africa terror battle, U.S. should lead from way behind

By Blake Hounshell, Special to CNN
updated 12:04 PM EST, Thu January 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blake Hounshell: Critics focused on Clinton's fiery comments at hearing, not more pressing issue
  • He says focus should be danger of U.S. getting drawn into fighting extremists in N. Africa
  • He says it's not clear what threat al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses to U.S.
  • Hounshell: U.S. should lead from way behind French, African forces while developing strategy

Editor's note: Blake Hounshell is the managing editor at Foreign Policy.

(CNN) -- As theater, Hillary Clinton's congressional testimony on the September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi did not disappoint. The secretary of state was prepared. She was poised. And she was fiery.

Clinton likely regrets her exasperated response to persistent questions by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who repeated the charge that the Obama administration had misled Americans over whether there was a protest on the night of the Benghazi attack, as reports first indicated. She exploded: "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?" The response instantly inspired the critical hashtag #WhatDifferenceDoesItMake and became a hot topic on right-wing radio.

But otherwise, Republican members of Congress hardly laid a glove on her, perhaps because the party has bizarrely focused on the Obama administration's post-attack talking points instead of more important issues: Does the State Department have the resources and policies it needs to keep American diplomats safe? What level of threat do extremist groups in the region really pose to U.S. interests? And what does the Obama administration want to accomplish there?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The hearings should have been more substantive because the United States is at a dangerous inflection point in North Africa and the Sahel region to its south, and leaders in both parties need to think carefully about how deeply we want to get involved in this volatile part of the world. In Libya, the United States has already helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, whose vast arsenal has ended up in the hands of some pretty nasty characters.

With some in the Pentagon reportedly pushing for drone strikes in Mali, and the United States providing logistical and intelligence help to French forces there, we are gradually getting sucked into conflicts that were never considered our vital concern.

In her opening statement, Clinton tried to put the Benghazi attack in this context, describing steps the United States is taking to address "the broader strategic challenge in North Africa and the wider region."

"The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region," she said. "And instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria."

Those attacks, in which a group of jihadists tied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seized control over a natural gas facility and took dozens of hostages, are indeed alarming. Oil and gas facilities across North Africa, especially in Libya, are likely vulnerable. U.S. diplomatic facilities are almost certainly at risk.

But it's by no means clear what threat al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or for that matter its ally Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups controlling northern Mali, poses to the United States. As terrorism exert Daniel Byman notes, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb "largely lost its struggle in Algeria" before joining forces with al Qaeda's high command in Pakistan and trying to wrap its longstanding fight with the Algerian military into the global jihad. And rebel groups such as the Tuareg have a long history of using harsh tactics to extract concessions from the central government. Is getting involved in their parochial struggles the best way to keep Americans safe?

Clinton, senators clash over Benghazi
Clinton's heated exchange over Benghazi
Algeria PM: Facility booby-trapped

Perhaps a better question is how involved we want to be. Some reports have linked al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has ties to al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan, to the Benghazi attack. Three Americans died in the gas plant in Algeria, and seven more barely escaped with their lives. The United States reportedly has had special operations forces in Mali for years. So, in a sense, America already is very much involved.

But that doesn't mean the right course of action is to get in deeper. To varying degrees, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies clearly do pose a threat to U.S. interests in their corner of Africa, but there's little evidence that they have the capability or intent to strike the U.S. homeland. The United States needs to lead from behind in this region -- but way, way behind, with French and African forces in the front. Al Qaeda would like nothing more than to drag the United States into another protracted quagmire.

In her testimony, Clinton outlined the stakes. "We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven.

"We've got to have a better strategy," she said. I couldn't agree more.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Blake Hounshell

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT