We are still wondering just what happened in Benghazi, Libya, with the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the State Department’s Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
That this tragedy happened on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans makes it all the more difficult. Eleven years later, we have another September 11 to grieve. What have we learned? What lesson should we glean from such calamity?
At best, the tragedy reminds us to honor the dedication, sacrifices and service of our personnel—and not just those serving in the military. All those who knew him say that Stevens represented the very best of our foreign service.
At this point, it is not clear how and why critical warning signs were overlooked. Hopefully we will get good information about what happened—before the U.S. elections in November. As a first step, the U.S. is reevaluating the safety of our diplomatic personnel around the world including in our own hemisphere. One thing is clear, however: No matter our best intentions, people will want to do us harm. That is a safe assumption.
More broadly, these events cast in doubt the “leading from behind” approach—if that’s even a policy in its own right or simply a politic way to duck responsibility.
As the United States of America, we are expected to lead. We are needed to set the bar of international standards, such as by defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Despite all the bellyaching and naval-gazing on the decline of America, we are still the world’s superpower.
When we do not assert that leadership, we give other actors a greenlight to fill the void. When we yield our better sense and our better interests for the sake of multilateralism and those organizations, we run the risk of appearing weak and becoming vulnerable. When we do not define what our red lines are for the sake of not offending other nations, we run the risk of appearing misinformed and naïve. This approach obfuscates our intentions, fails to elucidate our objectives and renders us reticent.
Instead of building friendships and opportunities for collaboration, we are creating confusion. While we must respect different styles of governance and a diversity of political parties, we cannot tolerate governments that run roughshod over human rights, intimidate journalists and fail to allow transparent elections. Such political correctness in our foreign policy is subverting our national tradition of leadership. We are too passively watching history unfold around us; the U.S.’s role must be more than just bearing witness and then reacting to chaos.
Just as leadership is an American tradition, so is finding opportunity from conflict and loss, and forging ahead. We now have an opportunity to reassert our international leadership and promote our values: democratic governance, human rights, fair elections, and free enterprise.
One opportunity fast approaching: Venezuela and their un-fair election on October 7. The U.S. has an opportunity to call this charade for what it is. We also must prepare to manage the inevitable chaos that will follow this particularly intense contest (if not this year, then in a few years). The political and socioeconomic conflicts in Venezuela are not going to resolve on their own, or even with the simple demise of President Hugo Chávez himself. The U.S. has an opportunity—even an obligation—here to lend its expertise and experience.
Whoever is elected the next president of the United States should recognize the many opportunities present with Latin America, and the opportunity costs by leading from behind and not articulating our democratic values. Such passive deferral, or neglect, of regional leadership comes at our own peril.
Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.