Skip to main content

Libya killings show U.S. at risk in Arab world

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
A man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames at the U.S. consulate in Libya on September 11.
A man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames at the U.S. consulate in Libya on September 11.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: The murders at U.S. Embassy in Libya show fragility of U.S.-Mideast relations
  • He says events show Arab Spring is unresolved and is vulnerable to small groups
  • Rothkopf: Crisis comes as Israeli-U.S. tensions, Syria and Iran problems rise
  • Rothkopf: Ambassador Chris Stevens and colleagues quietly tried to improve the world

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- The brutal murders of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three American diplomatic staffers in Benghazi underscore the profound fragility of U.S. relations in the region. It is hard to recall a time when crises such as this and in the Middle East afflicted so many American interests simultaneously, nor one in which U.S. policies were so deeply at risk.

The tragic events in eastern Libya themselves represent the culmination of events that began and unfolded well outside the mainstream of Libyan life or the U.S. relationship with that country.

An obscure filmmaker in Los Angeles produced a slapdash video that was seized upon by an extremist group of Americans who have in the past distinguished themselves for the toxic cocktail of hate and stupidity that drives their actions.

Via the special contagion of the Internet, their vileness, which once would have been as hidden from view as it deserved to be, triggered protests at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Opinion: What terrorists want us to believe about Libya

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf
Libya struggling to deal with militants
Obama: 'Justice will be done'

U.S. sources told CNN on Wednesday that the Benghazi attack was planned in advance, and the attackers used the film protest outside the consulate as a diversion. The sources could not say whether the attackers instigated the protest or merely took advantage of it, and they say they don't believe ambassador Chris Stevens was specifically targeted.

But targeted or not, the victims were American diplomats who had willingly undertaken the risky mission of trying to assist the advent of democracy in that faraway place.

This violence underscores that deep hatreds lie just beneath the surface across the region, even in countries where relations with the United States have had important positive dimensions, either recently or over an extended period.

The problems run deep for the region and U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.

First, the riots and violence illustrate that the broader political circumstances in the countries of the Arab Spring remain unresolved and potentially vulnerable to serious disruption from even small opposition groups. The Morsi government, slow to condemn the Egypt attacks Tuesday, has itself been unsettled by violence across the country in the past couple of months.

Second, however, these are hardly the only tensions bubbling over in the greater Middle East and South Asia. The situation in Syria not only is worsening daily but is spilling over as refugees seek haven in Jordan and Turkey. The Iraqi government, increasingly undependable as a friend of the United States, has allowed Iranian aid flights to Damascus despite U.S. protests. Afghan allies are turning on U.S. troops with alarming regularity. The State Department just underscored the increasing threat from Pakistani extremist groups by finally citing the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network as a terrorist group.

But perhaps the fault line of greatest concern to the Obama team, even as the bad news was filtering out of Benghazi, is the standoff with Iran regarding its nuclear program and the deterioration in the relationship between the United States and Israel, historically our closest ally in the region.

Libya, West react to killings, film controversy

The U.S.-Israeli relationship reached a new low on Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily reacting to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertion that Washington would not specify "red lines" regarding Iran's nuclear program; and then the Israelis leaking word that Obama refused to meet with him during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. This resulted in a late-night call between Obama and Netanyahu that was ostensibly intended to show the allies were communicating and acting in tandem. But the White House denied the Israelis had even requested a meeting with Obama in New York, revealing the depth of the problem. When allies can't agree even on what they disagree about, the relationship is in trouble.

Both sides are scrambling to do damage control -- and behind the scenes are fuming. Neither feels like the other is behaving like a friend. That's because there are very real differences between the leadership groups in both countries, and this complicates a tough situation. Every sign of tension and every delay plays into Iran's hands and enables it to advance further with nuclear weapons development.

These deepening tensions keep the Obama team -- desperate to avoid an October surprise before November's elections -- scrambling with high-level meetings and planning high-level trips to the region, and reveal similar risks for the campaign of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Romney on Tuesday issued a prepared release condemning the Obama team's handling of the Egypt and Libya violence. It was almost instantly overtaken by the news of the deaths in Benghazi, making the Romney critique seem ugly. It was ill-considered and ill-timed, and underscores that in presidential campaigns, no candidate gets to pick the stories that drive the headlines -- and that foreign policy often crops up to complicate matters and test a candidate's real readiness. Romney, with his earlier comments on Russia and in Israel regarding Palestinians, reveal he needs more temperate counsel.

Headline-grabbing and statesmanship seldom go together, as demonstrated in the past 24 hours by the war of words between Israel and the U.S. and in Romney's misstep. In fragile times and when longer term interests are at stake, restraint goes a long way.

The best work is often done quietly, behind the scenes. It is done by people like Ambassador Chris Stevens, his colleagues who also died and those that remain on the ground in Libya and across the region.

They understood that they were taking on considerable risks, as did their government. They did so willingly, because they knew it was only through accepting those risks and making a long-term commitment to the region that progress could be achieved. That must be their legacy and it is a message that needs to be heard and understood by the American people before they overreact one way or another to each or any of the current crises. Indeed, it is in times like these we must emulate in our policies the best qualities of the lives they led.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT