(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) The controversy over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the Obama administration's response to it are being dumbed down and overblown.
Dumbed down because the focus is on word choice rather than substantive criticism of the administration's handling of the incident; overblown because the administration's critics are trying to make an argument that the facts don't support.
That this is happening is not surprising, given the nature of US politics, especially during a presidential election campaign. But it has the unfortunate consequence of obscuring the actual significance of the attack.
In the weeks since the attack, the president's critics have focused their attention on his choice of words to characterise the incident, in particular whether or not he called it an act of terror. There is a valid substantive basis for questioning whether the president and his administration intentionally avoided characterising the attack as a terrorist act.
After all, the administration has invested a great amount of political capital in the electoral value of having 'won' the war on terror. If its reluctance to explicitly acknowledge the premeditated nature of the attack on the Benghazi consulate was intentional and meant to preserve this campaign plank, it amounts to willful dishonesty, a punishable offense for any government official. If it was unintentional, then there are some other valid questions to be asked about the administration's crisis response and risk preparedness procedures.
But those targeting the president for his choice of words do so with a larger objective in mind: To implicitly call into question his administration's record on countering global terrorist networks. Here, they are pursuing a red herring.
Barack Obama has been ruthless - some would say too ruthless - in pursuing an 'invisible war' against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. As a result of a withering campaign of US drone strikes, Al Qaeda central is largely shell of its former self in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and its local affiliate in Yemen is suffering. In Somalia, Al Shabab is on the run - the first good news to come out of that troubled state in decades. What has emerged in the past two years, however, is a troubling new vector of Islamist radicalism in Libya and the Sahel, where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Tuareg militants have taken advantage of the region's large expanses of under-governed territory to establish themselves.
First, it is important to emphasise that while all of the factors feeding this growing threat have been exacerbated by the Arab Spring and the Nato intervention in Libya, none of them were created by either event. The Obama administration is not responsible either for militancy in eastern Libya, which was already a major source of foreign fighters in US-occupied Iraq, nor in northern Mali, where Tuareg nationalism had already been the cause of numerous armed uprisings.It bears noting that many of the groups active in the region are also engaged in lucrative transnational criminal activities such as kidnapping and smuggling. Their extremist rhetoric is at times opportunistic, and must be understood in the context of their business interests.
Second, the insistence on calling the attack on Benghazi an act of terror might be counterproductive, in the sense that it could obscure a turning point in the long war the United States has been waging in the region for the past decade.
In particular, it is necessary to distinguish between militancy and terrorism - something Americans have no problem doing in regard to Colombian paramilitary groups, for example, but seem to find more difficult when it comes to radicals. Not every guy with a gun and a grievance is a terrorist. Those responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi were operating locally, for largely local objectives, and they threaten neither Americans nor America. So while Americans should feel outraged by the attack, it would be absurd for them to feel terrorised by it.
Indeed, if anyone in eastern Libya should be feeling terrorised these days it is those responsible for the attack. Judging from this administration's record elsewhere, their days are numbered.
More broadly, the attack illustrates the way in which the metastasizing of global terrorism has not resulted in a broader globalisation of strategic objectives, as was long feared. Instead, it has resulted in the creation of transnational links through which tactical expertise and 'brand legitimacy' is shared, with the objectives remaining local.
Most importantly, though American interests are targeted and threatened by these atomized local affiliates, the American homeland remains beyond their reach. Though this does not signal the end of the long war, it does mean that it is time to begin re-examining the adversaries that we are facing, in particular by 'deterrorising' them. Again, the comparison with Colombia is useful. Americans do not feel terrorised by the paramilitary groups that operate there, despite the outrageous violence these groups engage in. There is no more reason to feel terrorized by paramilitary groups now operating in eastern Libya and the Sahel. In fact, the shift offers some reason for optimism. Both terrorist networks and ideologically driven paramilitary groups are extremely difficult to defeat decisively. But terrorism is an amorphous and invisible threat, whereas paramilitary groups are discrete and visible, making them easier to counter. This explains why the natural progression for armed militancy is from paramilitary insurgency to terrorism. Seen in this light, militancy is currently in the process of undergoing a genetic mutation, but a regressive one that makes it a more manageable problem.
In the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, the administration would have done well to make this point clear. Instead, its response and the politically motivated controversy it generated have obscured the larger significance of the tragic events in Libya.