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At 10th anniversary of Benghazi attack, former diplomat offers context in new book

Benghazi! by Ethan Chorin
Hachette Books

Benghazi. It's become a political Rorschach test for the country. The Right sees it as everything wrong with Democratic foreign policy or some kind of cover-up, while the Left sees it as conservative pushed conspiracy theories.

Ethan Chorin's book Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink takes several steps back to give much needed context — historical, regional, political, and social — to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

One thing is clear: There is plenty of blame to go around for what lead up to the attack, and more importantly, the response after that attack.

It hits close to home for Chorin. He was in Benghazi when the attack took place. A former diplomat, Chorin served in Libya from 2004-2006, during the George W. Bush administration's rapprochement with the country and its former leader, Muammar Gaddafi. It was an opportunity "to look under the hood" of a country that had been closed off to America for decades. His love for the country and the people he met is evident across the pages of his book. After the uprising, he and a Libyan American from Texas formed a non-profit to focus on medical help for Libya.

Chorin also knew Stevens. He admired what Stevens represented in the State Department — expeditionary diplomacy. It's the idea that diplomacy requires some degree of risk-taking rather than staying behind fortified walls. The two were expected to meet in Benghazi on Sept. 12. Aside from a strong understanding of Libya, the two men shared a hope for the country's future and America's role there.

It's easy to get lost in all the details that Chorin presents and that most Americans don't know about: the legacy of colonialism, past U.S. support for dictatorships in the region, the lack of opportunity in the country and the anger toward the Gaddafi regime, the "flip-flopping" interactions the West had with different leaders and groups on the ground and much more. What's not lost on most Americans, however, is the role domestic politics played in the aftermath.

Former U.S. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg famously once said, "politics stops at the water's edge." Yes, politicians may beat each other up in the United States, but when it comes to foreign policy — and most especially when it comes to tragedies — politicians of all political stripes usually pull together in a united front.

For years we've seen that chip away — but for Chorin, domestic politics is what weaponized Benghazi in a way he had not seen before. "By making it about scoring political points rather than trying to fix a broken system, they only perpetuated a controversy that was further tearing apart the county." Part of this book is about asking if Benghazi started this trend or was the most well-known symptom of the trend.

He goes over all the domestic politics at play: the upcoming 2012 presidential election, the controversy over what sparked the attack (no, it was not an anti-Muslim video), why help was slow in coming (there was no stand-down order), how it was used to attack the 2016 Democratic presidential front-runner (Hillary Clinton), the role media and social media played, the lack of intelligence on the ground and more. As if to hammer home the point that the focus became all about politics, he notes that ten congressional investigations failed to answer some basic questions — like who perpetrated the attack in order to bring them to justice or why the embassy used local militias to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

"The fact that so many investigations resulted in so few answers is its own tragedy. From the edges of the five-ring political circus that was Benghazi, some voices shouted out important questions, none of which were answered," he writes. "The Benghazi committee might have been able to break new ground and do the country a service if it had focused on them."

Benghazi, Chorin says, has entered the American lexicon defined as a scandal, not tragedy like 9/11, the USS Cole bombing or the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. In the years since, there have been headlines asking "Is Niger Trump's Benghazi" or "Is Afghanistan Biden's Benghazi." Chorin writes "it's become a shorthand for any kind of event that can be blown up for partisan advantage."

For Chorin, writing this book was "like therapy." He winds up with more questions than answers about the attack, which he describes as an event that "morphed into a rationality-devouring creature that grew conspiracy theories for arms and eventually loomed in terror over the entire American sociopolitical landscape." And there is a strong sense of the lost opportunity, not just for Libyans, but for America.

In the end, what Chorin is really trying to do is give Benghazi its due, by doing the impossible: trying to take the fog of politics out of what happened that day. He's trying to get answers that a non-partisan investigation into the attack should have tried to find — so that America can learn from what happened so that it does not happen again — and not just score political points.

If that can happen, Chorin believes, then the American lives lost in Benghazi that day will not have been in vain.

Whether that can happen in today's political climate, remains to be seen. But it seems doubtful.

Caitlyn Kim is the Washington, D.C., reporter for Colorado Public Radio. She worked as a U.S. diplomat from 2013-2018, serving in Estonia, Pakistan and D.C.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlyn Kim