The U.S. won’t be intimidated by terrorists and unrest into pulling diplomats and aid workers from troubled regions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said amid a political storm over security during the Sept. 11 attack that killed the American ambassador in Libya.
“Supporting democratic transitions is not a matter of idealism,” she said yesterday. “It is a strategic necessity.”
In a speech laying out the Obama administration’s vision of the Middle East and North Africa almost two years after the so-called Arab uprisings began in Tunisia, Clinton said the U.S. will remain engaged in the region’s newly democratic countries while acknowledging the U.S. can’t control the outcomes there.
“These transitions are not America’s to manage, and certainly not ours to win or lose,” she said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But we have to stand with those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth.”
Clinton said it’s unrealistic to expect the U.S. can “prevent every act of violence or terrorism or achieve perfect security.” Diplomats and aid workers “can’t live in bunkers and do their jobs,” and the U.S. “will not retreat” from dangerous places, she said
As for the investigation into the Sept. 11 attack at the Benghazi consulate, Clinton said the administration will be “as thorough and expeditious as possible” in reviewing the security measures that failed to thwart it, and “we are sparing no effort to track down the terrorists who perpetrated this attack.”
Congressional Republicans have challenged whether there was adequate diplomatic security in Libya as well as the administration’s initial explanations of what led to the attack. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney yesterday said Vice President Joe Biden was “doubling down on denial” after the issue flared during the Oct. 11 vice presidential debate with Republican nominee Paul Ryan.
During the debate, Biden said “we did not know” of a request for additional security at the mission in Benghazi a month before the incident. The State Department had rejected such a request by security officers in Libya.
Clinton’s larger point was that the U.S. “will not pull back our support for emerging democracies when the going gets tough. That would be a costly strategic mistake that would undermine both our interests and our values.”
Clinton sought to dismiss an argument during the early days of the Arab uprisings that U.S.-allied authoritarian leaders such as Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak would ensure American strategic interests in a way that elected governments might not.
“We will not return to the false choice between freedom and stability,” she said.
The U.S. has made clear to Egypt’s elected leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood party -- a group that has in the past questioned Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel -- that Egypt’s standing “does depend on peaceful relations with its neighbors,” Clinton said.
Over the last year, elected or transitional governments have replaced entrenched dictatorships in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, and all four nations have struggled against efforts by extremists to exploit the demise of authoritarian regimes.
“A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship,” Clinton said, referring to pockets of extremism and disparate armed groups that have continued to hold sway in Libya, among other places. “Nor was it enough time to stand up fully effective and responsible security forces to replace the repressive ones of the past.”
At the same time, Clinton sought to dispel any notion that the elected governments of North Africa or the people had been co-opted by radicals seeking to destroy the democratic project.
“The terrorists who attacked our mission in Benghazi did not represent the millions of Libyan people who want peace and deplore violence,” she said.
She cited public demonstrations by Libyans condemning the attack and swift government action to fire security officials and disarm militias in the days after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. officials were killed.
Likewise in Tunisia, she said, the government officials increased security at the U.S. embassy and pledged to confront violent groups and to prevent their country from becoming a haven for terrorists.
“Last month’s violence revealed strains of extremism that threaten these nations,” she said. At the same time, “we’ve seen actions that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago: Democratically elected leaders and free people in Arab countries standing up for a peaceful, pluralist future.”
“I remain convinced that the people of the Arab world do not want to trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” she said.
The transitions now need to enter “a phase that must be marked more by compromise than by confrontation, by politics more than protests,” while delivering economic improvements and jobs, she said.
In her 40-minute speech, Clinton described in detail Obama administration initiatives in the region, including $1 billion in assistance and a pending request to Congress for $770 million more. She said the U.S. is training security officials, border guards, prosecutors and forensic specialists, as well as supporting enterprise and investment programs.
“We will keep leading, and we will stay engaged,” including in hard places “where America’s interests and values are at stake,” she said. “That’s who we are. That’s the best way to honor those whom we have lost. And that’s how we ensure our country’s global leadership for decades to come.”