As the firestorm over its handling of the Benghazi consulate attack only increases, the administration is trying to divert attention to amped-up terrorism-fighting efforts in Libya’s North African neighbor.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers today to put a “strong bilateral relationship” on display before Clinton traveled on to the Balkans.
“We had an excellent Strategic Dialogue on a number of issues just last week in Washington,” Clinton said in remarks after their morning meeting today, referencing the first-ever summit between the two governments.
“And we had an in-depth discussion of the region, particularly the situation in Mali. I very much appreciated the president’s analysis, based on his long experience, as to the many complicated factors that have to be addressed to deal with the internal insecurity in Mali and the terrorist and drug trafficking threat that is posed to the region and beyond,” she continued.
“And we have agreed to continue with in-depth expert discussions, to work together bilaterally and with the region – along with the United Nations, and the African Union, and ECOWAS – to determine the most effective approaches that we should be taking.”
President since 1999, Bouteflika has been able to survive the Arab Spring despite protests against a poor job market, government corruption, and the regime’s crackdowns on free speech.
Algeria is also home to one of the groups that works against the Obama administration’s “al Qaeda is on the run” meme: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which possibly has ties to the militants who killed four Americans at the consulate.
As Clinton indicated, the trip was largely intended to push African-led military action in Mali, where militants with ties to al-Qaeda have seized the majority of the north. The crisis was mentioned a handful of times by Mitt Romney in last week’s presidential debate.
A push from the administration on Mali, along with a well-publicized show of camaraderie with Algeria, might serve a couple of purposes for the White House: trying to reinvigorate its meme of being tough on Islamic terrorism while it’s being blasted for not pinning the blame on terrorism in Benghazi, and shifting the battleground for this renewed fight away from Libya (which will spur memories of the failure) itself while remaining in the region.
Adding to the theory of seeking reconciliation over Benghazi, Clinton also held remarks today with staff and families of the U.S. embassy in Algiers.
The U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Henry Ensher, gushed over Clinton as “the best secretary of State I’ve ever worked for or hope to work for” in his 30-year career.
“You also know that diplomacy is inherently risky in today’s world. There are so many – unfortunately, so many people and organizations and forces that don’t want people to learn to understand each other better, who don’t want people to live peacefully together, who just don’t understand that we’re all here doing the best we can, and we need to help each other,” Clinton said in a shout-out to the Algerian staff at the embassy, the closest she came to referencing the violence next door. “And I think that what you do in diplomacy and outreach sends that message every single day.”