Benghazi! The day that launched America's dizzying downward spiral — and I was there

Obama didn't tell the truth — and the right weaponized that viciously. This is how America drove itself nuts

Published November 6, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.  (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

In the early hours of Oct. 28, a conspiracy theorist broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco home and hit her 82-year-old husband on the head with a hammer, fracturing his skull. The previous July, President Biden visited Saudi Arabia, hoping to persuade Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman to ease oil production to make up for flows disrupted by Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine: It was an obvious bid to head off inflation at home and improve Democrats' chances in the midterm elections. The Saudi-led oil cartel OPEC decided to cut production instead. 

In both of these events, one can find the residue of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the nearly four-year partisan melee it unleashed. At many other points in American history the Pelosi attack might have been dismissed as a freak event, but in a political climate boosted into orbit by the Benghazi attack and its extended aftermath, it's evidence of an  ever-growing pattern of homegrown extremism. The Saudi monarchy's pass on Biden's request highlights the degree to which the Middle East, despite endless statements to the contrary, still has the power to change the course of American domestic politics. 

In his 2018 memoir of his years as one of the most influential of Obama's National Security Council advisers, Ben Rhodes wrote that right-wing attacks emanating from Benghazi had crossed some threshold in American politics. He was right, but the dynamics weren't completely one-sided. In order to understand how this happened, we have to go back a decade, at least.  

On Sept. 11, 2012, the threadbare U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi came under sudden attack by an initial wave of 20-odd men armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, some dressed in Afghan-style clothes — the hallmark of ex-mujahideen fighters. They set fire to the compound, killing the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, and one of his deputies. That was followed a few hours later by a second attack on a more fortified CIA facility a mile away, resulting in the deaths of two military contractors, both former members of U.S. special forces.

I'm a former U.S. diplomat and a former colleague of Stevens. I was in Benghazi at the time working on a medical infrastructure project. Stevens invited me to dinner at the U.S. mission that night, but I declined, citing my own security concerns. Later that night, I was on the phone with the mission as the attack began. Holed up in a dark hotel room three kilometers away, I was forced to listen to the sounds of intermittent battle until dawn. I spent much of the following day at the Benghazi Medical Center, where Chris had been brought in, critically injured and unresponsive, late the previous night, and where he and I and our colleagues were to have met to discuss a medical project that morning. Our immediate goal: Find a way out of Libya. 

Back in Washington, over the days and weeks that followed, there was persistent confusion about whether the attack had been an intentional, planned act, or was a spontaneous public reaction to a U.S.-made anti-Islamic hate video that had sparked widespread anger in the Muslim world and had been linked to a protest and attack against the U.S. embassy in Cairo earlier in the day, and several subsequent incidents. 

When I returned to the States eight days after the attack and was asked to comment on the anti-Islamic video that had supposedly caused it, I had no idea what they were talking about.

Frustrated with what they felt was White House stalling, senior Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain, accused the Obama administration of trying to muddle the causes of the attack for political purposes. Indeed, any explicit connection between the video and the Benghazi attack struck me and several other witnesses — including senior Western diplomats and businesspeople, as well as the Libyans we were in contact with — as highly unlikely. 

When I returned to the States eight days later, and was asked by the Wall Street Journal to comment on the video, I had no idea what they were talking about. I had left the State Department in 2011, but both Stevens and I had served prior diplomatic tours in Libya and were among the Americans most familiar with the city. We had returned as the 2011 revolution was underway, in very different capacities, to try to draw American attention back to the city at a critical time. But as I boarded the last commercial flight out of Benghazi on the night of Sept. 12, I was acutely aware that Stevens' death would likely produce the opposite effect of what we'd been working for: The United States would abandon Benghazi and would soon abandon Libya. I felt the impact would go far beyond that. On the back of a cocktail napkin, I sketched out a tribute to Chris and a plea for America not to abandon the people of Libya. The New York Times published my op-ed the next morning. I hoped I was being overly pessimistic, but that was only the beginning.

The scandal that erupted around the Benghazi attack represents a paradox: On one hand, it was one of the loudest, longest, most acrimonious partisan blowouts in American history, lasting from the end of Obama's first term through most of his second. For years this one event was a fixture of American media, with Fox News making it the lead story in more than a thousand broadcasts. Yet ultimately, the mainstream media and the general public have written Benghazi off as inconsequential. 

Intuitively, that claim should be viewed with suspicion. Any scandal that lasts that long and arouses such intense bipartisan anger is bound to have consequences, even if they aren't immediately obvious. For Libyans, Benghazi's impact was immediate, and striking: The U.S. evacuation effectively handed the city of just under a million people, along with much of eastern Libya, to al-Qaida and then ISIS for a period of nearly three years. The attack signaled the end of American interest in the Libyan revolution, and in 2014 the U.S. pulled the last of its diplomats out of the country, hastening its fall into an extended civil war. 

The Benghazi attack contributed to the radicalization of the Syria conflict as well, by accelerating the flow of weapons, cash and fighters into Syria, not just from Libya but also other countries whose leaders (correctly) suspected that the chances the U.S. would act to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad were close to nil. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

America's retreat from Libya and Syria would be a major factor in enabling Russian interference in both countries, and contributed to Putin's belief that the U.S. would not respond to his increasingly aggressive land grabs in Crimea and Ukraine. Similarly, Turkey has used Libya as a springboard to extralegal claims to other American allies' resources across the Mediterranean, with little American pushback. In Yemen, as elsewhere, in the wake of Benghazi the U.S. moved from in-country spies and diplomats to remote-control drone warfare, which fueled Yemeni anger and partially blinded U.S. to Iran's increasing support for the Houthi rebels — which ultimately precipitated Saudi Arabia's 2015 military intervention in Yemen, and one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. The United States conveniently forgets its own enabling role in that debacle. 

Benghazi was a common denominator in all the factors blamed for Hillary Clinton's 2016 defeat: The pseudo-scandal over her emails, James Comey's statements and Russian cyber-attacks.

After 2015, the media's focus on "Benghazi" started to wane, even as the Republican-led Benghazi Committee used it to create the pseudo-scandal of Hillary Clinton's use of a private server for her State Department emails, which in turn generated other derivative conflicts. While Benghazi was barely mentioned in post-2016 election postmortems, several senior former Obama officials have since pointed to it as a common denominator in most of the other factors blamed for Clinton's loss in 2016, from her emails to FBI Director James Comey statements (which evolved from those emails) to Russian cyber-attacks (which used Benghazi and related anti-Clinton memes liberally). Clinton wrote in her campaign memoir, "What Happened," that the repeated accusations over Benghazi were a "slime" she couldn't wipe off. 

One reason the Benghazi scandal hasn't been given its due as a major event in modern American politics is that the main actors in the drama have absolutely no use for it. Once the visible storm had passed, Democrats avoided any mention of the place,  lest it invite more criticism. And by 2015, the Republicans were already pulling back from Benghazi references, after concluding that they'd gotten all the juice they needed from that lemon. The media, writ large, had been accused of complicity in enabling Trump's win, and also didn't want to be reminded of its role in creating and perpetuating the Benghazi scandal. . 

Still, there continued to be those across the foreign policy and security bureaucracies in Washington who called out Benghazi's impacts on American domestic and foreign policy. Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador in Egypt during the 2012 Cairo attack, and later assistant secretary of state for the Near East. told me in 2017 that Benghazi had been a "total disaster for American foreign policy and diplomacy abroad," largely due to the risk aversion it generated. Former Obama Defense Department official Andrew Exum told "PBS NewsHour" the same year that the "Benghazi effect" had undermined U.S. military response capabilities in the Middle East. 

A decade later, the American public is still unaware of most of this backstory. Those who could remember the details have largely banished them from their consciousness, even as they've allowed themselves to be swallowed by subsequent obsessions, notably Donald Trump. There was no better evidence of this than the silence surrounding Benghazi's 10th anniversary last September. America's attention was on the Jan. 6 hearings and the death of Queen Elizabeth. 

Benghazi occurred on the anniversary of 9/11, and in the final lap of a contested election. Lurking in the background, social media had become capable of amplifying this material into a potent, polarizing force.

So how do we explain Benghazi's destructive power? Part of it was just bad timing: Benghazi occurred on the anniversary of 9/11, and in the final lap of a contested election in which Republicans were determined to challenge Obama's record on homeland security. It killed an American ambassador, the first to perish in the line of duty since 1979 — and that happened in a country where the U.S. president had recently intervened militarily, with a notable lack of  success. And lurking invisibly in the background, social media and its algorithms had become capable of taking this kind of material and turning it into a potent, polarizing force. The kindling was all there. 

But even that background was insufficient to explain the partisan blowout that would quickly emerge. Here, the next layer was the long-brewing toxic dynamic between Republicans and Democrats. For more than eight years, Republicans had been telescoping a range of other complaints against the left, and against Obama personally (starting with the birtherism movement and its false claim that Obama wasn't a "natural-born" U.S. citizen) into the charges that in a post-9/11 world, he sympathized with terrorists. 

Throughout this abuse, Democrats, and the Obama administration in particular, had developed an understandable if counterproductive flight response, described in detail by NSC officials in testimony before Congress about the need to divert valuable resources from planning and policy coordination toward defending the president from social media attacks. This siege mentality was clear in the administration's reaction to the attempted al-Qaida "underwear" bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009 (Obama's staff noted they believed  the president's second term "hung in the balance over Detroit.") 

Obama may have thought he had curbed Republican attacks with the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but if anything, the right's attacks grew. As Craig Whitlock argues in his book "The Afghanistan Papers," the administration found itself under increased pressure to put space between it and the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This led to a public relations strategy designed to make Obama's Afghan surge look like it was going well, lest the reality interfere with Obama's 2012 re-election prospects. Then there was Republican challenger Mitt Romney's description of Obama's Middle East policy as an "apology tour." If there was any doubt within the White House about the Republicans' strategy were another terror attack to occur, the Romney campaign's eagerness to condemn Obama's response to attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, even as the Benghazi attack was underway, offered a clear answer.

When news of the attack on the U.S. mission reached the State Department ops center and the White House, Benghazi must have seemed a manifestation of Obama's worst political nightmare: A terror-linked election surprise. 

 As the various committees formed to investigate Benghazi confirmed, extreme confusion and bureaucratic miscommunication interfered with efforts to confirm what had actually happened on the ground. But at some point, the administration gave in to the temptation to use that confusion to deflect attention from the involvement of al-Qaida proxies (which some U.S. intelligence officials had already determined were operating in Libya to "soften up" the country), in order to kick the controversy past the election. While the Obama administration denied shaping any of the public talking points, when the president was offered a chance to elaborate on the nature of the Benghazi attack, he repeatedly chose to "duck the question," as the Washington Post noted. 

The Obama administration's inclination to duck and cover created intense mistrust on both sides of the aisle, and fueled a long series of claims, suspicions and conspiracy theories that were increasingly divorced from reality.

For me, the  point of no return appeared to have been reached with Obama's Sept. 25, 2012, speech before the UN General Assembly, which focused on the anti-Islamic video, while eulogizing Stevens and misstating one of Stevens' purported reasons for visiting Benghazi, i.e., "to modernize a hospital." That was days after the U.S. intelligence community had swung back to discounting the video-protest theory and endorsing the terror attack theory. 

Even if the Obama administration had no intent to deceive the American public, the inclination to duck and cover was one of the key ingredients that made Benghazi go "viral." That prolonged unwillingness to state the obvious created a degree of mistrust on both sides of the aisle, which the right exploited to underpin a long series of claims and suspicions and conspiracy theories that were increasingly divorced from reality, all the way up to QAnon and Pizzagate — two of the stated influences of the Pelosi attacker. 

It's reasonably clear why that bet on low-level obfuscation seemed relatively risk-free to some in the Obama team at the time. Obama-era memoirs suggest that few in his Cabinet — with the likely exception of Hillary Clinton — believed the scandal could last beyond the November 2012 election. But that bet, whatever its rationale, had the unforeseen consequence of trapping both UN Ambassador Susan Rice — who delivered the incorrect initial Benghazi talking points — and Clinton herself within the Obama flight narrative. Furthermore, it ultimately led to the dismantling of large parts of Obama's domestic legacy, with the election of Donald Trump. 

Over the years, I have felt compelled to write about Benghazi in a number of venues, publishing more op-eds in the New York Times and Foreign Affairs. I guessed that this, more than my status as someone who was actually on the ground at the time, was the reason I was called to testify before the Republican-led Benghazi committee. I wasn't eager to do this, fearing that anything I said could be turned into political fodder. But I needn't have worried: I wasn't asked any questions that would have allowed me to provide interesting input. But the losses in Benghazi and the spectacle bothered me tremendously. In 2015, I resolved that the only possible remedy was to provide my own testimony, in the form of a book. 

This proved far more daunting a task than I expected. When I first approached publishers with a proposal in 2014, several editors jumped at the idea. One flew across the country to offer a handshake. But it was soon withdrawn. "Marketing," I was informed, concluded that few Americans would buy such a book. There were too many other Benghazi books out there already (indeed there were, almost all of them right-wing polemics). Several well-known New York agents confirmed the standing view that Benghazi was Kryptonite. One told me I'd be better off writing a cookbook. 

But were these projections actually true, or self-fulfilling prophecy? Was the American public really uninterested in Benghazi, or was it just allergic to bullshit? This is still an open question. But I continued my own work on the book, on the side, and found an agent who believed the story was worth the trouble to tell 

One New York agent told me I'd be better off writing a cookbook. But was that true? Was the American public really uninterested in Benghazi, or was it just allergic to bullshit? This is still an open question.

In late 2016, as Benghazi was in the process of being liberated from al-Qaida and ISIS, I returned to the city — another risky venture — to dig deeper. That episode had its hairy moments as well, but it taught me something. Up to that point, I hadn't really admitted to myself that I was seeking to heal a trauma, the answer to which wasn't to be found in Benghazi as much as  in my own head. It occurred to me that some of what was preventing a more balanced look at Benghazi by Americans as a whole was a collective trauma reaction to unprecedented levels of post-Benghazi polarization. Ultimately, I had to wait until 2020 before I found publishers who thought that enough time had passed for Americans to have the capacity to look at Benghazi more dispassionately.  

In full awareness of the fact that America's current situation is highly resistant to easy solutions, are there relevant lessons here for the midterm elections? At this stage, perhaps not. But longer term, maybe: When we speak of undermining democracy, we usually mean executive authority, checks and balances, the rule of law. But the erosion of the independence and quality of the professional bureaucracies is a key ingredient in the erosion of democracy. Without that separation between politics and analysis  there can be no objective truth, no consistency in policy and, ultimately, no accountability. 

While politics can never be divorced from foreign policy (nor should it be), we must demand that our elected officials insulate professional foreign policy, intelligence and security bureaucracies from undue interference. They should also invest in rebuilding and developing those capabilities to face rapidly evolving threats while also allowing for transparency, so that Americans aren't yet again duped into wars that experts deem likely to be catastrophic to national interests. As I argue in my book, at a grassroots level, we need to find creative ways to draw citizens out of their physical and virtual silos — even temporarily or occasionally — whether through tax incentives to work in communities other than their own, or dramatically increased funding for international programs like Fulbright, the Peace Corps and other programs that haven't yet been conceived. The principle is the same as that used by Libya's former dictator Moammar Gadhafi to reduce tribalism: The more people mix, the better. 

But Benghazi offers a fundamental political lesson that Democrats keep failing to learn, which is that the best antidote to fake news and conspiracy theories is brutal, repetitive honesty, supported by long-term vision and a willingness to stand up for one's values and principles — even at risk of losing an election. 

While writing the book, I often thought about the two founders of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. They're both dead now, killed by covert American operations. While their infamy is well deserved, their destructive accomplishments remain vastly understated. And the worst is yet to come, if American leadership doesn't grasp and explain to their constituencies that these two men's diabolical vision created a trap that continues to ensnare and unravel American democracy, while allowing each of our political parties to blame  the other for that achievement. Certainly anything that makes Americans realize that we are our own worst enemy would be a welcome development. 

By Ethan Chorin

Dr. Ethan Chorin is the author of “Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco That Pushed America and its World to the Brink.” He was in Benghazi during the 2012 attack, and before that was among a small number of U.S. diplomats sent to Libya in 2004 to reopen relations with Moammar Gadhafi.

MORE FROM Ethan Chorin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authors Barack Obama Benghazi Books Commentary Foreign Policy Hillary Clinton Libya Syria