The second presidential debate takes place Tuesday night. The topics are slated to be a mix of questions concerning both domestic and foreign policy matters. One issue that’s almost certain to come up is the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya last month.
Within hours of the attack on the American consulate there, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was blaming President Obama for a failure of leadership. The Obama Administration fired back, criticizing Romney for politicizing the attack. And so it’s gone, leading up to the Vice Presidential debate last week.
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said, “Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn’t we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi?”
To which, Vice President Joe Biden responded, “The Congressman, here, cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for.”
So, was there enough security in Benghazi? And if not, could more have been provided?
“It’s extremely difficult to know what is necessary and what is proper in situations like this,” said Alan Henrikson, the director of diplomatic studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Henrikson said under international law, the host country is responsible for security at embassies and consulates. If the host country, in this case, Libya, can’t fulfill that responsibility, then it would fall to the country with the consulate, the United States.
“So this is a very difficult balance for countries that have embassies and consulates overseas to strike,” said Henrikson. “This is a very serious problem that is affecting almost every country that has embassies and consulates abroad right now.”
Henrikson said it’s unfair to exploit the situation in Benghazi for political reasons. But he added, in retrospect, more could and should have been done to protect Americans there.
Max Boot agreed with that latter assessment. He’s with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and is also a defense adviser to the Romney Campaign. Boot said Romney should talk tonight about the failure of the Obama administration in Libya.
“You know it happened during the Obama Administration at a time when they’re boasting about their achievements in the Middle East and in particular about the war against al-Qaeda. And I think what this shows is that al-Qadea and other jihadist groups are far from defeated, they remain a potent threat, and the administration has to take accountability for what happened,” said Boot.
But if there was a security failure, who was ultimately responsible? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, she is. She told CNN last night, “I take responsibility.”
Alan Henrikson at Tufts said Clinton is not just trying to provide political cover for the president. “The protection of embassies, the negotiation of arrangements with the host country is a State Department responsibility.”
Romney adviser Max Boot, however, said Secretary Clinton shouldn’t shoulder the blame. “As Harry Truman used to say, the buck stops here.”
The father of US Ambassador Chris Stevens also weighed in on the matter. He said it would be “abhorrent” to turn his son’s death into a campaign issue.