Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee members and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Jan. 23 traded testy barbs over the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya. (AFP)
Senior U.S. officials and lawmakers are coming to grips with the emerging reality that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies must increase their efforts in a region where Washington has been reluctant to do so: Africa.
Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee members and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Jan. 23 traded testy barbs over the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya. But beneath the politics of the 90-minute hearing were repeated signs that the Obama administration and lawmakers now believe — somewhat reluctantly — that America’s light footprint in Africa simply is no longer good enough.
Clinton’s much-anticipated Senate testimony over the Benghazi attack, which was delayed due to her recent health scare that included a blood clot in her head, featured several testy exchanges with Republican lawmakers.
The hearing’s most memorable — and partisan — moment came when Clinton angrily took umbrage with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who said the Obama administration deliberately misled the American people about the roots of the attack. He told Clinton that anyone trying to figure out the origin of the attack could have simply made “one phone call” to U.S. personnel who had been evacuated from the Benghazi facility.
That kind of call, Johnson said, would have led U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to conclude the attack was not the result of a protest gone awry. Rice angered Republicans with her comments on Sunday morning political shows days after the attack, when she did not dub the incident a terrorist attack,
A clearly agitated Clinton then fired back: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” with her voiced raised to a yell and her fist pounding the table where she was seated.
“Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?” she exclaimed. “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.
“Honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is, people were trying their best, in real time, to get to the best information,” Clinton roared.
“Give me a break, Sen. Johnson. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,” she said over the flap surrounding Rice’s comments.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., offered another of the hearing’s most memorable moments. Citing Clinton’s acknowledgement that her office had not received cables sent by senior officials at the Benghazi facility to Washington requesting more security, Paul said if he were president at the time, “I would relieve you of your post.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the Republican lawmakers who has most forcefully attacked the Obama administration over Benghazi and helped force out Rice, used his time to slam Clinton. The Senate maverick called her answers during the hearing “unsatisfactory to me.” He also reiterated his months-old question about why, on Sept. 11 of all days, there were no military assets either on site in Benghazi or available to respond more quickly.
He branded Rice’s comments on the Sunday shows “false answers,” and told the secretary that he believes the administration should have been able to discern quickly that the attack was planned, rather than the product of a demonstration that gotten out of hand.
“People don’t bring RPGs and mortars to a demonstration,” McCain said. “That’s a fundamental.”
Clinton responded by telling McCain, “We just have a disagreement when it comes to explaining the sequence of events.”
Administration officials did not interview State Department security agents who were at the scene for several days, and “we had no access to surveillance cameras for weeks, which helped answer a number of questions,” Clinton said.
She also told McCain that some members of Congress for most of last year stubbornly placed and kept legislative holds on funds and initiatives that would have helped provide assistance to Libya, including dollars and measures for security.
“We were told it’s a wealthy nation,” she said. Congress and the executive branch “have got to get our act together” she said, her voice again rising. “We have got to work together.”
While the Senate hearing was peppered with pure political punditry and partisan exchanges, GOP members and the outgoing Democratic secretary agreed on one thing: The emergence of al-Qaida affiliate groups across Africa — especially the vast continent’s northern nations — makes it increasingly important for Washington.
Over the last few years, as the Obama administration ramped up efforts to dismantle al-Qaida’s core leadership cell in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similar extremist groups formed and begin picking up steam in Africa.
To that end, Clinton told the senators the U.S. faces new threats in North Africa. Her comments suggest that the reluctance by the administration of President George W. Bush to install a large American security footprint in Africa, which came in response to worries from African leaders, including U.S. allies, is being replaced by an acceptance that new threats warrant more action there.
And that includes U.S. Africa Command, which the Bush administration opted to headquarter in Germany to assuage Africans’ fears about negative political and security ripples produced by American boots on the ground.
“We’re going to see more and more demands on AfriCom,” Clinton said of U.S. Africa Command. “And that is something, I think, the House and Senate will have to address.”
Clinton warned senators that new “democracies” in the region are inexperienced at running countries and providing security at American diplomatic facilities.
Under questioning from GOP senators about senior Obama administration officials’ claims for over a year that the core al-Qaida cell in Afghanistan-Pakistan has been “decimated,” Clinton provided a nuanced answer.
“There has been the decimation of core al-Qaida … in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but we’ve got to deal with the offshoot organizations” in places like Africa, Clinton said.
Lawmakers from political parties also expressed concerns about the emerging al-Qaida threat in Africa. The previous day, McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration’s “lack of engagement” on that very issue was, in part, to blame for the Benghazi attack.
The collective agreement about threats emanating from Africa shows that the vast continent, especially places where Islamist extremist groups have taken up residence, will be a big focus of President Obama’s second term.
In places like Mali, where French troops have been deployed to help fight extremists, Clinton was blunt: “We are in for a struggle. But it is a necessary struggle.”
That’s because, she said, Washington “cannot allow northern Mali to become a safe haven [for al-Qaida and similar groups].”
But is the U.S. prepared to confront these African-based groups? America’s outgoing top diplomat suggested not: “We have got to have a better strategy.”
Yet Clinton offered a blueprint.
Gains made in Somalia fighting the al-Shabab extremist group were “no accident,” Clinton said. “It took American money and assistance.”
During testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee later the same day, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., asked Clinton which Africa-based terrorist group is the biggest threat to America.
Clinton told Bass all such groups must be taken “seriously.” While none of those groups currently have the ability to plan and conduct strikes inside the United States, Clinton warned, “we have a lot of facilities” in and around North Africa.
As an example, Clinton cited the recent deadly hostage-taking by an extremist group in Algeria.
“There is going to be a struggle in this region,” Clinton said. “And the United States has to be prepared.”