Skip to main content

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

By Blake Hounshell, Special to CNN
January 24, 2013 -- Updated 1704 GMT (0104 HKT)
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
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT