The Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, dominated foreign policy discussion at Tuesday's presidential debate (economic competition with China was the only other foreign policy issue).
The discussion turned largely on when the administration acknowledged the attack as an act terrorism and on charges from both candidates that the other had politicized the issue. Those are both clearly important issues politically, but they're about politics and process more than they are about foreign policy. That's too bad, because what happens in Libya matters, and there are surely opportunities here for both candidates.
Benghazi likely will come up again at next week's foreign policy debate, so here are five important questions about the attack and its implications for U.S. foreign policy:
1. Libya is rife with unregulated citizen militias like the one that attacked the consulate, a legacy of last year's civil war and a symptom of the Libyan government's struggle to establish basic security services. The militias are difficult to track and a risk to Libyan security. Why, one year after Moammar Gadhafi's death, are they still operating so freely? What should the U.S. do about them?
2. Both Libya's government and its people have shown support for the U.S.; a recent Gallup poll found that 54 report of Libyans report a favorable view of the United States, about on par with allies Israelis and Canadians. How can the United States fight terrorism in Libya, as both candidates promised to do, while maintaining Libyans' support? Do the Obama administration's efforts in Pakistan or Yemen, for example, provide a good model for this?
3. One lesson of the Iraq war is that bunkering up diplomats in fortified compounds can make it more difficult for them to access the local population that could be the United States' best ally in finding and stopping attacks before they happen.
What's the appropriate balance for American diplomats in potentially dangerous countries?
4. President Obama pledges to "hunt down those who committed this crime." But how can the United States deter future terrorists from wanting to commit such attacks in the first place? When asked about gun control, both candidates discussed the need to enforce gun laws as well as to "change the culture of violence that we have," as Mitt Romney put it. How does this approach translate to fighting terrorism?
5. Does the Benghazi attack have any lessons for how the United States should act on Syria? Is there anything the United States should do differently there in terms of empowering militias, shipping small arms and/or conducting intelligence?
6. In retrospect, was the U.S. role in the Libya intervention the right thing to do? Does the Benghazi attack suggest that there's anything the United States should have done differently?