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In Light of Benghazi Hearings, Taking Stock of Arab Spring, North Africa Turmoil

January 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Secretary Clinton offers congressional testimony on the consulate attack in Benghazi, Jeffrey Brown talks with former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute about Clinton's performance and whether the United States is doing enough to combat Islamic militants in North Africa.
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JEFFREY BROWN:  And we pick up on Secretary of State Clinton’s testimony today and issues it raised about Benghazi, the growing dangers in Africa, and the challenges for U.S. foreign policy.

We’re joined by former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns, who served in Republican and Democratic administrations. He’s now with the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard University. And Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Nick Burns, I want to start with you and start with Benghazi. Was there more light shed today? Where do things stand in terms of understanding what happened and the response to it?

NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs: Well, Jeffrey, I thought it was a commanding performance by Secretary Clinton. She was well informed. She was a master of the detail in all the briefings.

And she took responsibility, which was the right thing to do. She said that she will implement all the 29 recommendations of the accountability review board. Now, I think that the Republicans there obviously had a right and I think they had an obligation to ask tough questions, because this was a disaster for the American Foreign Service to lose four people in one day, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

But I must say just watching it this morning and as it went on this afternoon in the House of Representatives, there were elements of partisanship that we really don’t need anymore. It was almost as if we have been transported back to September and October and the presidential campaign.

 And certainly the remarks will of Sen. Rand Paul were ugly. And they were very unwise, to accuse Secretary Clinton of culpability in the way that he did. I think we have got to move forward, Jeffrey, to two big issues. One is, how do we protect our diplomats going forward? And part of that answer is for the State Department to learn the lessons of what happened and what went wrong.

Part of it is for Congress to fully fund embassy security. Congress denied the State Department $340 million that it needed last year to fortify our embassies. And the second big issue …

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, let me stop you there.

NICHOLAS BURNS: How do we now go after the terrorist groups?

JEFFREY BROWN:  OK. You have put them both on the table then.

Let me get Danielle Pletka in.

First, what do you think of what unfolded today with Secretary Clinton in the …

DANIELLE PLETKA, American Enterprise Institute: Well, I think Nick was right. The secretary has obviously got a great command of the facts. She’s a good speaker. She’s authoritative. And she was a member of Congress. She knows how to handle her former colleagues.

But it really was a lot of sound and fury signifying not very much. She didn’t really answer questions about what happened in the run-up to the attack, why our response wasn’t better. And all of these efforts to direct us to move forward and to learn these lessons really fail to understand that the way we move forward is by acknowledging exactly what went wrong.

Just saying “I take responsibility” is admirable and sounds gutsy, but it doesn’t really mean you’re taking responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN:  But what about what Nick Burns says, that there’s now been this review? It’s looked at it. It’s come up with many recommendations. And that is — what she’s saying is, in a sense, that’s the way to move forward is to implement it and learn from what happened.

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, it’s a very Washington perspective. You know, we have our blue-ribbon commission. We appointed the right generals and former diplomats.

The truth is that what happened, and the reason this became a scandal is not just because of the absolutely dreadful murder by terrorists of four people serving their country. It was because the White House and the State Department and many others insisted for a full week after the attack that occurred on Sept. 11th that it was the responsibility of a film and the response to a film, and not a terrorist attack.

Now, the American people, not the Congress, not the secretary, they deserve answers, and those answers really haven’t been forthcoming, and they were not on show today.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, Nick Burns, try — respond to that, but also sort of try to move this into the larger picture, because the other part of what she was talking about, of course, today was the other parts of what’s unfolding in North Africa and how do we move forward.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, Jeffrey, I would just say that Secretary Clinton does have 29 specific recommendations before her by a very serious panel, and she’s in the middle of implementing all of them.

I think that’s the right thing for her to do. And, therefore, I did think that she dealt directly with the questions that were asked today. There’s a much larger issue here. And that that’s we’re witnessing that two years into the Arab revolutions — and the Arab revolutions are entering a new and dangerous phase, and we’re seeing it in North Africa in this part of the world, with the terrorist attack and hostage-taking in Algeria of last week, with the destabilization of Libya, and in some ways of Egypt itself.

And you’re seeing now a radical terrorist group, Islamic terrorist group taking over the northern part of Mali. This has consequences of the entire region of what the Africans call the Sahel, which extends from Mauritania in the west, Mali, Burkina Faso, the southern parts of Libya, and Tunisia and Algeria.

It’s very important for American interests that we respond to this and go after those terrorists. And thank goodness for the French, who have now taken up the lead with a lot of African countries supporting them, by the way, to try to stop this group. It’s very important that we meet that challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, so, Danielle Pletka, does your critique from Benghazi extend to what is unfolding now, when you see the administration responding or not responding?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, not responding is the answer.

I think the entire trend has been troubling. And I think Benghazi was merely a symptom of a larger policy of retreat, of unwillingness to deal with the challenges that we’re facing from al-Qaida, because it’s not just in the Maghreb. It’s not just in Libya and in Mali and in Algeria. It’s also in Yemen. It’s in Sinai. It’s in Iraq. It’s, of course, in South Asia and Afghanistan and Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN:  But in what ways do you see us retreating, specifically in North Africa, in Maghreb?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, I think it’s nice that Nick said that we should thank the French, and absolutely the French have interests in Mali as well.

Apparently, the administration is really struggling right now about how much support to provide to the French, not on the ground, but merely on the question of refueling their flights.

If we’re not even willing to do that, it does beg the question about how willing we’re going to be to step up to this challenge in the Maghreb.

JEFFREY BROWN:  You see a larger pulling back happening in the administration?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Absolutely. I think that is the signal we have gotten from the president’s appointments.

I also think, frankly, that it’s the signal that we got in Libya. The subcontracting of arming the forces in Libya that were fighting Gadhafi to Gulf countries meant that arms flowed not to people who we chose, not to people who NATO chose, but to people who were chosen by Gulf countries.

That’s one of the reasons we have this terrible blowback.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, Nick Burns, that’s larger question. And, of course, we’re at the beginning of a new administration. We heard the inaugural speech the other day. Do you see the administration somehow pulling back from its efforts particularly in Africa?

NICHOLAS BURNS: No, I don’t at all. I think that’s unfair criticism.

First, the president has appointed both Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Chuck Hagel, internationalists, capable people who really know what they’re talking about. Second, the administration began lifting by C-17 aircraft French soldiers into Mali on Monday. We’re providing all sorts of logistical and intelligence support to them. We’re behind them.

And, third, the administration I think has done very well in engaging in Egypt. And as we talk, Jeffrey, about the stability of the Middle East, Egypt is the keystone country. And a lot is going wrong in Egypt, but a couple of things are going right. Elected government paying attention to its constitutional responsibilities has kept the peace agreements, the Camp David accords with Israel, and has a working relationship with the United States.

So, I’m worried about a lot of these trends in the Middle East. We haven’t even talked about the civil war in Syria. But I do think the administration is focused on this. The president has a working relationship with President Mohammed Morsi. Israel has to meet a lot of these tests. They will meet — they will need American support.

And I think we are seeing an engaged, sophisticated administration at work.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All this, of course, Danielle Pletka, goes to the sort of continuing fallout from the Arab spring, all of these countries that Nick Burns just talked about and the management of that.

DANIELLE PLETKA: And that’s reality challenge.

I mean, these are the questions. You know, all of these sort of bureaucratic ideas, you know, he has a relationship, we’re maintaining this, we had a panel, we’re following recommendations, this is really about the national security of the United States and support for our allies in the region.

And they’re looking to us. And what they are seeing is not, gee, we have a great relationship with these people. They’re seeing that we’re not engaged on the most pressing issues that are of importance to them, whether it’s the Iranian nuclear problem, it is the spillover from what is happening in Syria. It’s 80,000 people dead in Syria.

We have genuine threats that we’re facing, and we’re not managing it by having a good diplomatic relationship with these people. We are not dealing with it. And we are going to pay.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, very much to be continued.

Danielle Pletka and Nicholas Burns, thank you both very much.

DANIELLE PLETKA: Thank you.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.