Republicans wanted nothing more than to summon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Capitol Hill and grill her about the tragic fiasco in Benghazi. Sadly for them, they got their wish.
Clinton's smooth and confident performance at last week's Senate and House committee hearings was fun to watch. When her would-be inquisitors asked serious questions, she gave serious answers. But when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., full of bombast and faux outrage, accused the administration of initially misstating the nature of the Benghazi attack, she responded with table-pounding thunder: "What difference, at this point, does it make?" And when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he would have fired her had he been the president, she answered with an icy cut of her eyes that said: Fat chance.
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The engrossing theatrics of the hearings obscured the important and troubling substance: While the al-Qaida terrorist organization that was founded and led by Osama bin Laden has been decimated, affiliate and successor groups are growing -- and perhaps coalescing -- into a significant new threat, especially in North Africa.
Analysts believe the group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb may have been involved in the storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. This is the same group that seized control of a vast expanse of savanna and desert in northern Mali -- and was on the verge of conquering the whole country before France, the former colonial power, intervened this month.
A breakaway faction of the Islamic Maghreb group responded to the French military action by seizing scores of foreign hostages who worked in a remote gas field in Algeria. It is still unclear how many of the foreigners -- who included Americans -- were killed when Algerian authorities stormed the compound to end the siege.
"The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region," Clinton said in her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria."
These events are what critics should be pressing President Obama and his foreign policy team about. Instead, they make themselves look petty and foolish by narrowing their focus to one word: Benghazi.
What Republicans seem to be trying to suggest is that Obama and his aides, with just weeks to go before the election, tried to keep voters from learning that the Libyan incident was apparently a terrorist attack. As evidence, they cite statements made by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice one morning -- one single morning -- as she made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, linking the attack to anti-American demonstrations across the Islamic world over an insulting video produced in the United States.
If this is a cover-up scenario, it must be the lamest ever devised. Obama had already called Benghazi an act of terror. It was already known that the attackers were well-organized and armed with heavy weapons. Rice was speaking from slapdash talking points, thrown together at a time when intelligence assessments of the incident were still fluid. No one could rationally believe there was an attempt to deceive.
But the GOP's Benghazi fixation has never been rational. That's a shame, because there are legitimate, tough questions that need to be asked about the evolving threat from Islamic extremists fueled by jihadist fantasies.
The Arab spring created power vacuums across North Africa and the Middle East that Islamist parties, factions and militias are rushing to fill. Insurrections in Libya and Syria have produced a new cohort of battle-hardened fighters, much as the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan produced an earlier generation of religious warriors.
More alarming is the possibility that some 2.0 version of al-Qaida will carve out a territorial haven that becomes a magnet for jihadists from around the region -- and a launchpad for attacks against American and other Western targets. Perhaps France's intervention will be enough to keep northern Mali from becoming such a refuge. Perhaps not.
The correct U.S. response is not to go looking for wars to fight; we've been there, done that. But neither should we blithely ignore developments that may turn into threats. Now that Republicans have gotten Benghazi out of their system, maybe we can debate foreign policy questions that actually matter.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.
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