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Libya delivers an early ‘October Surprise’

REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in flames during a protest by an armed group on Tuesday.

The murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya underscores that the Arab Spring’s revolutionary upheavals continue while our diplomatic successes remain fragile and our friends in the region are uncertain.

A coup d’etat plays out in days, weeks or at most a few months. A revolution, like the Arab Spring, takes at least a generation to complete. The final results of the European revolutions of 1848 came in the First World War and the destruction of the empires of old Europe. The rise of Stalin and his reign of terror in the 1930s brought to an end the forces that had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia in 1917. The anti-communist revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 are only now shaping into a split decision with the consolidation of democracies in Eastern Europe and the rise of neo-totalitarian regimes in Russia and most of the other states formed from the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Richard Virden

Richard Virden

For a diplomat’s perspective on the Benghazi tragedy and the Arab Spring, I turned to my friend and colleague Richard Virden. Virden is the diplomat-in-residence at the College of St. Benedict and Saint John’s University. His 38-year career in the Foreign Service included two tours of duty each in Poland, Brazil and Thailand, and postings in Portugal, Romania and Vietnam.

“The facts are still far from clear even now and the crisis is not over,” he cautions. “Lives are at stake and, back here, politicians should hold their fire.”

Virden acknowledges that “foreign policy is a legitimate issue for political debate.”  However, a crisis in foreign policy “should not be exploited for political gain and, at this stage, the situation in Libya is still too dangerous,” he said.

Romney on Libya

Mitt Romney did not hold his fire. His response Tuesday evening succeeded in reminding Republican strategists why it would be better if Romney did not discuss foreign policy in this year’s presidential election campaign. Would Romney care to elaborate on just how the U.S. Embassy in Cairo could have issued a statement on the demonstrations in Benghazi several hours before the events occurred?

For the Romney campaign, the topic of foreign policy appears to be emerging as second only to the topic of his dog Seamus as issues best not discussed.

For President Obama, the Libyan debacle is a sobering reminder that good diplomacy is not a guarantee of success.

Until now, the Obama administration’s policies toward Libya stood out as singular diplomatic success stories. In Virden’s words, dictator Muammar Qaddafi “was over-thrown and democracy prevailed in Libya without American troops on the ground.”

Ambassador Stevens embodied the best of the new diplomats in the Middle East. Trained in Arabic, popular with the majority of Libyans and a key friend to the anti-Qaddafi forces in Benghazi during the Libyan civil war, Stevens was an American model for winning the minds and hearts of the Arab world and, not surprisingly, a target for assassination by the militant opposition.

What may be most important in Obama’s response to the crisis is not what he has said, but what he did not or could not say.  In an interview with the Spanish language network Telemundo, Obama responded to a question on Egypt with a frank comment on the complexities of the new situation. “I don’t think we would consider them an ally,” he said, “but we don’t consider them an enemy.”


The president’s remarks seem to indicate he had read Thomas Friedman’s recent op-ed in The New York Times on the United States’ need to live in a new world characterized not by clearly defined friends and enemies but by “frenemies.”

Obama was also acknowledging that we faced more uncertainties than certainties in the emerging new order of the Middle East. The only clarity to come from the Libyan crisis is to convince Obama that he is correct to stay away from military intervention in Syria and to increase our military presence in the region.

The president, nevertheless, is not likely to introduce Friedman’s idea of “frenemies” in the election rhetoric anytime soon or to campaign on the reality that we conduct foreign policy in a radically changed world that is increasingly outside of our control.

This election’s “October Surprise” has come early. For the past few weeks, rumors circulated that a surprise might come in the form of a new initiative by Obama in the war on terrorism.

This past Tuesday, just hours before the attack on Benghazi, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as the most likely candidate to throw an “October Surprise” into our election. His demand for a “red line,” an ultimatum, tightened the trigger aimed against Iran. Rumors immediately spread that either he would pull that trigger or at least exploit his visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month to make war or the likelihood of war against Iran the central issue of the last month of the presidential election.

Instead, Libya has delivered an early “October Surprise.” It is not so much a surprise as a wake-up call that the revolutions that accompanied the Arab Spring are not yet over and that foreign policy has a way of inviting itself into U.S. elections.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/14/2012 - 10:45 am.

    Romney is right

    “Would Romney care to elaborate on just how the U.S. Embassy in Cairo could have issued a statement on the demonstrations in Benghazi several hours before the events occurred?”

    “According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.”

    Also – “I don’t think we would consider them [Egypt] an ally,” [Obama] said. Then we should immediately stop the annual $1.5 billion bribe we’ve been paying them to leave Israel alone. With the Muslim Brotherhood in charge, that’s no longer a promise they intend to keep anyway.

    The bigger question is, how did we get to this point in history where on the anniversary of September 11th, angry mobs in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere could attack our embassies with impunity? The last time this has happened was in 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president when the Islamists saw Carter as weak as Obama is today.

    Why has the press gone after Romney for criticizing Obama’s inaction when they should be asking Obama why he didn’t respond to the credible intelligence by beefing up those embassies with more Marines? Instead, he slept through the whole thing, then got up and went to a campaign event.

    People need to know that this nation’s embassies are under coordinated attack across the globe and it has nothing to do with a six-month old YouTube video. This is all about 9/11 and the Muslim world’s belief that America under Obama is fair game for riots and political assassination of our foreign diplomats because this nation under this administration is too weak to stop them and the American press as then in 1979 and now, will not hold them accountable.

    I have no doubt that the people in Israel are praying that Romney wins in November so they can breath a sigh of relief that their only ally in the world will be back when Obama is gone.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/14/2012 - 06:19 pm.

      Yes, we all know that the toughness of Reagan prevented the bombing of the Marine barracks and the death of the CIA agents a year or so later. And the steely determination of Bush Sr.certainly prevented Saddam from invading Kuwait. And goodness knows what might have happened if the iron will of Bush Jr. hadn’t prevented AlQuaeda from killing 3000 Americans in New York City.

    • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/14/2012 - 08:33 pm.

      Wrong again about history and Carter and facts

      Reagan withdrew the Marines after the barracks bombing, a barracks that was woefully protected. He did not criticize Carter about the failed Iran rescue.
      The funding for security for the embassies was it by 1.2B by the Republivpcan led Congress.
      And Bush apologized to the Muslim world more than once,
      What is different now is commentators who no better than the very same crazy radical Jihadists they condemn, like Klein, the hatemongering pastor in Florida and the entire Republican punditocracy. Our discourse is so bad we are aspiring to the same low standards of the radical Islamists.

  2. Submitted by Sean Huntley on 09/14/2012 - 12:07 pm.

    Funny that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers says he is not aware of any such memo, and would have been briefed on it if it actually existed.

    Romney blew it on this, plain and simple.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/14/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    The Nobel Prize wasn’t enough….

    Obama is evidently so determined to replace Jimmy Carter as the worst President in the history of the United States, he’s willing to destroy the one thing Jimmy did accomplish with distinction.

    The Camp David accords established a relationship between Egypt and the US that has kept the peace for more than 35 years. Now they are “Frenemies”.

    Honestly, words fail me.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/14/2012 - 03:44 pm.

    Do not forget that democracy and freedom in the Middle East was one of the goal of the invasion of Iraq. From there, the flames of freedom would spread across the Middle East. It presaged the “Arab Spring”–people would welcome us with open arms and flowers.

    Ten years later, hundreds of thousands dead, millions wounded and displaced, what really do you think the Middle East reaction to the US would be? We are in a vulnerable position.

    It was clear from the beginning of the “Arab Spring” that no-one knew what the outcome would be. The right wing said Obama was “not leading” sufficiently. Would Romney have sent in the 5th division to take out Mubarek or Qaddafi? Would we have started the same puppet governments that are proving to be so very undemocratic in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would those invasions have guaranteed us a big place at the table in Egypt and Libya? Would we be loved any more in those countries?

    Or should we have supplied arms and ammunition only for insurgents? Who would be holding those weapons right now? If you think of the uproar over a few weapons from “Fast and Furious”, what would the uproar be over an entire army of newly armed radical Islamists?

    Or should we have propped up the Mubarek and Qaddafi regimes to maintain their dictatorial control of radical Islam elements? What would that do for our “Freedom Agenda”? What would happen when the irresistible force of a repressed people eventually overcome the corrupt and cruel rulers–what would our place at the table be?

    But those are water under the bridge–they happened, and we straddled the mushy middle ground simply because there was no clear option which would resolve in the US favor.

    Now, the question is, what would Romney do differently in Syria? What would Romney do differently about riots in various Islamic countries? He should give answers if he thinks he deserves a position at the foreign policy table.

    Would he support the dictator in Syria which is a partner of Iran, Russia and China? Should he support the insurgency that has elements of various terrorist units? Should he pretend it’s not our business?

    As for the various attacks and riots–would Romney send in the Marines to kick-ass? Or send in ta couple of divisions? Or have some cruise missile strikes? Or what? We all know the result of indiscriminate attacks on civilians–it brings no friends and has proven over and over that it wins no wars.

    All the carriers, bombers, bombs, battleships, tanks and other weapon systems that Romney has promised that will make the world afraid to attack us are not part of the long-term solution to the current period of unrest in the Middle East.

    There are no good decisions to make. It’s a waiting game until the overwhelming discontent of the underemployed, under-educated and generally impoverished populaces of the Middle East comes to some sort of resolution. We can attack, or we can assist, but more than likely it will be a meandering middle course with many unpleasant daysbecause there are no clear and obvious routes to a satisfactory solution.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/14/2012 - 04:39 pm.

      A second sane comment

      On this issue. It has become too common to send US troops everywhere, usually by older white men who never participated in a war nor had family members involved. The Middle East is a totally different world, just as we learned in Vietnam.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/14/2012 - 06:16 pm.


        Unfortunately – for those on the right – the American voter is starting to recognize attempts at manipulation by shoot from the hip politicians such as Mitt Romney.

        Most voters now understand that a responsible candidate does not shoot off his mouth in the middle of a deadly serious diplomatic crisis – in which American lives were lost – until all of the pertinent facts are known.

        President Obama, in stark contrast to Mitt Romney, behaved in a responsible and presidential manner.

        Most of us agree with the sentiment expressed by Arthur Vandenberg that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

        Romney failed this important test. It will cost him the election.

        • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/14/2012 - 06:50 pm.

          I agree Bill…

          “Most voters now understand that a responsible candidate does not shoot off his mouth in the middle of a deadly serious diplomatic crisis”

          Which is why Obama’s massive “Frienemy” blunder is so very embarrassing for him, and for America.

          • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/14/2012 - 08:36 pm.

            Once again, Mr. Swift,

            you need to do a little research:

            President Barack Obama says he will decide whether Egypt is an ally or an enemy of the United States in part according to the way the fledgling government in Cairo responds to the violent assault on the American Embassy there, which happened on Monday.

            “Certainly in this situation what we’re going to expect is that they are responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected,” Obama said. “And if they take actions that indicate they’re not taking responsibilities, as all other countries do where we have embassies, I think that’s going to be a real big problem.”

            “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They’re a new government that is trying to find its way,” Obama replied in what, by the standards of diplomatic talk, amounted to a blunt warning.


            On the one hand the right complains about Obama kow-towing to Islamists and when Obama gives Egypt a blunt warning, the right whines about “Frienemies.”

            You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Swift.

            • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 09/17/2012 - 08:38 am.

              And the Cairo Government came out and condemned the attacks due to this subtle pressure applied by Obama. Far from an embarrassment, it was effective diplomacy.

  5. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/14/2012 - 11:05 pm.

    Listening to the typical partisan rantings ….

    It strikes as odd that the strident partisan beatings and ad hominem personal attacks made by the usual conservative trolls on these forums sound as strident, uniformed and distorted as the Arab protestors attacking embassies.
    The problem with partisan, biased and dishonest claims used to gain power is that they attract the very people who are so hard to control once they hand you power. I wonder if Mr. Morsi might not have some words of warning for Mr.Romney. It looks like the genie of bigotry and hatred is a hard one to put back into the bottle.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/15/2012 - 09:58 am.

    Aliens from Mars

    We have a problem with our “Aliens from Mars” approach to the ME. We have no real diplomatic relations with many of the countries. We don’t speak their language, we don’t know the customs, we don’t know the players. The only information we get is from back-channel routes, Then when trouble developes, we think we can descend in our hightech platforms and start blasting away and expect to get the results we want.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/15/2012 - 09:11 pm.

    Massacres in Syria, even the killing of a diplomat, matter less than this election’s defining argument, about the economy. But the winner will face foreign policy crises from day one. Then the time for talk will be over. The great majority of Arabs want peace and security, jobs and prosperity, freedom to speak, worship, and conduct commerce. There is an educated middle class in each of these countries capable of running a modern government. There is a desire to support leaders who deliver order and prosperity while preserving rights and freedoms. Will each of these countries find its George Washington? Probably not, but some will. It is worth enduring the failures to see through the successes, because without reform the region gets a little worse every year, and only becomes a larger powder keg.

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