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 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
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.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
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.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
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?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT