Libya Consulate Attack Could Force Deeper US Engagement

The death of an American diplomat in Libya challenges the viability of limited intervention.

On Wednesday morning, the Reuters news agency reported that four Americans, including the country’s ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, had been killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the cradle of last year’s revolt against the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The ambassador and members of his staff were killed when unidentified men stormed the grounds of the diplomatic site, armed with small weapons and homemade explosives. Though no official details have emerged on how Stevens and the three members of his staff died, Libyan sources have indicated that a volley of rocket fire may have been responsible. It is thought by most commentators that protests against an American film said to insult the Prophet Muhammad served as the primary motivator for the assailants.

The tragic development is the latest in a series of attacks against international and government personnel across the Middle East and North Africa. From an assault on a Red Cross convoy carrying British diplomats across Libya to recent violent protests at American and other embassies in Cairo, Egypt, disturbances clearly indicate that the political and social fallout of last year’s upheaval in the region has yet to dissipate.

Indeed, given the severity of today’s criminal act and the grave impact that diplomatic deaths can have on a country’s policy actions, it is likely that the near term future may see an American refocusing of efforts on dealing with unrest and other ongoing issues in the new and established countries of the Middle East.

More violent than the protest movements in Tunisia and even Egypt, the 2011 international campaign in the skies above Libya was seen by many as having been relatively successful for the United States and its coalition partners in terms of remaining relatively withdrawn from invasive operations in support of democratic regime change.

Unlike the campaign on the ground for rebel forces, the conclusion of Libya’s “Arab Spring” movement turned out to be a discreet coup for the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Although expensive, both the support of various Arab League and NATO partners and the clear mandate to avoid ground missions allowed the United States to act in a limited fashion, intervening without the need to stall ongoing operational rebalancing to priorities in Asia and the Pacific.

This kind of intervention capacity, one that includes a level of reliance on the support of responsible international partners, may be increasingly valuable as America restructures its commitments in the wake of a political decision to focus on East Asia and the ongoing focus on budgetary austerity across the Western world.

However, in the context of the embassy attack, it seems likely that the challenge for American administrations will lie not only in deploying such intervention capacity but also having to affect involvement in a region whose priority status was envisioned to be diminishing. After all, with unrest and uncertainty presently peaking in events like those that killed Ambassador Stevens, it is undoubtedly the case that the United States will need to devote significant and visible efforts to encouraging and supporting the construction of institutional stability in countries in both Africa and the Middle East.

One point to consider is that, given that most recent dissident acts of violence have come from the general citizenry, as opposed to official government or third party groups, the United States will be incentivized to lend significant support to local governments in the form of security advising and engaging with stakeholders to crack down on factions that are contributing to instability across the region. Those factors include and are exacerbated by the fact that large segments of Arab population remain in possession of arms that were used during protests and rebel actions last year.

The basic fact is that the attacks on American diplomatic sites in Egypt and Libya communicate a continued need for American engagement in the Middle East. It seems likely that policymakers, particularly given upcoming elections in the United States and obvious corollaries to the situation in Syria, will quickly address the previously waning topic of how security aid can be directly rendered to those states that emerged from the Arab Spring.

Indeed, popular dissension and dangerous circumstances for international actors imply that the United States might even have to throw stabilizing efforts into high gear in the short term to assure both regional partners and new acquaintances alike.

The question will inevitably be whether or not America can adapt to such a diffusion of national security priorities. Can Washington act to adopt appropriate granular approaches to affecting policies in the Middle East that can, at the same time, both guide broad confidence building initiatives and keep resource commitments, and thus the viability of achieving other global goals, in check?

Given the escalation of localized unrest these past few days and the sudden impact it has had on international diplomacy, we will surely find out in the weeks and months to come.