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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
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.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
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
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
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.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
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.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
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.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
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.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
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.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT