First of all, on a political level, the early story seemed to confirm earlier criticisms of administration wishful thinking in the face of similar events. Sen. Susan Collins, for example, criticized the Pentagon for labeling as “workplace violence” the 2009 killings of 13 U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood. The Army officer charged in the rampage had communicated with a known terrorist and was shouting “Allahu Akbar” during the shooting.Similarly, the man in an attempt to down an aircraft near Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the final turn of one in a series of complex plots launched by al Qaeda in Yemen, was prematurely labeled an “isolated extremist” before all the facts were in.
Even more importantly, if wishful thinking can sometimes create political problems, it could take a far more important toll on the development and implementation of actual policy. The decision to intervene in Libya, though wrapped in a U.N. Security Council resolution to protect innocent life, was also a decision to overthrow the Libyan government, and U.S./NATO airstrikes continued until that goal was achieved.
With that “victory,” Libya was predictably thrown into chaos: no central government, no institutions of civil society, fractious armed militias, a budding jihadist movement in the east, lingering regionalism and tribalism elsewhere. Predictable consequences were not confined to Libya. Awash with weapons and fleeing mercenaries, northern Mali was broken off from the center and became a haven for a strengthening al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
How prepared were we for these predictable consequences? Clearly Ambassador Chris Stevens threw his heart and soul and ultimately his life into trying to shape a positive future. But were the full government’s efforts adequate to the task we helped create?
Although we were less immediately responsible for the overthrow of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, we will be no less affected by the outcome in those states. The same will hold true for Syria when the day of reckoning comes for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. What level of effort is the United States prepared to exert?
We shouldn’t fool ourselves. Our influence will often be far from decisive. But neither will it be trivial.
And surely, in a time of global challenges and fiscal pressures, we will have to pick our investments and “interventions” carefully.
But that will require a realistic rather than a wishful appreciation of events.
Over the past year the administration has repeatedly emphasized that “the tide of war is receding” and that “it’s time to do some nation-building here at home.” Many have read this as advertising an American retrenchment from commitments abroad.
Some may think that wise and are prepared to live with the consequences. One only hopes that the calculation of the consequences has been carefully done, based on hard realities, and not on the kind of wishful thinking that would turn a complex, synchronized terrorist attack into a kind of jihadist flash mob.