Hillary Clinton’s command performance before a committee investigating the 2012 attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, was a dress rehearsal of sorts. A rehearsal for facing a Republican opponent in a presidential debate, perhaps; but not only. ”I could see her across the table from Putin,” California senator Dianne Feinstein said.
But not once in that 11-hour marathon hearing did the real legacy of Benghazi come up.
The legacy is that the attack, which killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, caused the US—which had been a key part of the 2011 coalition that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi—to suddenly lose its appetite for reconstruction. “Libya became radioactive,” an attorney for the Libyan opposition writes (paywall).
It still is. Just training a Libyan security force—never mind other aid—will cost $600 million, but the US spent only $6 million in Libya last year. The country is still locked in a complex civil war, as the UN tries to broker a deal between Western-backed and Islamist coalitions. Fighting has driven refugees from their homes, offered ISIL a North African foothold, and undercut oil production for European markets.
The legacy of Benghazi goes even beyond Libya. It is found in the US’s current indecision about Syria’s civil war and the rise of ISIL. It is found in president Obama’s move to delay troop withdrawals from Afghanistan—for fear of further collapse. And it is found in Moscow, where Putin has learned not to allow his brutish clients to fall so easily.
The last time Clinton was across the table from Putin—or rather, his presidential puppet, Dmitry Medvedev—it was to persuade him to let the coalition intervene in Libya. Now, with Russia flying sorties against Syrian rebels, she says the US should impose a no-fly zone there. But what then? The yawning uncertainty about what to do next—that is Benghazi’s legacy.