Burned Again: Benghazi and Myth of ‘Nation Building’

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi burns during the terrorist attack of Sept.11, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

by Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman

What happened or did not happen when our consulate in Benghazi was attacked has become a contentious and partisan issue. This horrible attack on a diplomatic urban outpost is not the first in our dealings with the Muslim world. The international standards that foreign diplomats must be protected by the host country have been violated a number of times since the 19th century, not only for American but also to British diplomats, and only in Muslim countries.

The British Embassy was regularly attacked by mobs stirred up by Muslim clerics in Iran in the 19th century and most recently in 2011. Embassy guards are reluctant to shoot to kill rioters, particularly if they are unarmed, because this response could further enrage the mob. An embassy must depend upon the host country to disburse the mobs and arrest ringleaders. Western countries always protect the embassies under their jurisdiction, whether we like the visiting country or not. It is the responsibility of modern countries to do so, and we expect reciprocity for all of our diplomatic outposts in other countries.

Recently, Egyptian mobs attacked both the American and Israeli embassies, and new Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi was very slow to respond. But after sharp words from both the American and Israeli governments, Morsi finally realized that if he wished to be a respected international leader, he had to act like one. The Muslim Brotherhood has finally won an election and they are faced with the job of running a country, not just attacking those who preceded them.

Because of the dangers of having embassies in Muslim countries, the United States has turned our embassies into fortresses. I remember with nostalgia the American Embassy in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution, open to expatriates like me to visit the cafeteria and have a real American breakfast, or to attend parties for American holidays to which many Iranians were invited.

However, after the Islamic Revolution, our embassy was overrun, trashed, documents confiscated, and diplomats held as prisoners for 444 days. The only other country to close its embassy in protest was Canada, which should still shame the rest of the diplomatic world for its cowardice or reluctance to be principled.

The 52 American hostages (shown here upon their release) that were held hostage from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981 by a group of Islamist students and militants who took over the American Embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian Revolution

There is no way that the United States can protect our consulates, which by their nature are homes, not fortresses, against a rampaging mob. Furthermore, when the attack is staged by the likes of Al Qaeda, even an armed drone cannot kill only Al Qaeda operatives and not bystanders. The new government of Libya probably meant well and would have protected our consulate if they could, but they are inexperienced, inept and already run the risk of inflaming Islamists if they protect us.

The real problem is the 75-year old American policy that promotes “nation building” and “democracy,” lovely ideas, but doomed for failure in Islamist world. This is not just an issue of the religion (i.e. sharia) itself, which is antithetical to democratization, but the very cultures that support it, cultures with a very different standard of honorable behavior than ours. For example, in Afghanistan, police and soldiers whom we are training have turned on their trainers, making them impossible to trust.

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