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.”
“It’s safe to say that counterterrorism has been a critical prism through which the Algerian-U.S. bilateral relationship has been developing for some time,” a senior State Department official told reporters on background on the way to Algiers. “When the administration came into office, it was evident that we had a natural affinity with Algeria and we had a shared concern about al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
The administration provided a background briefing to reporters after today’s talks, too, which consisted of a 90-minute meeting followed by a two-hour lunch.
“Virtually the entire meeting portion focused on our counterterrorism cooperation and Mali, and they agreed that we need to now work together to build on our existing strong U.S.-Algerian counterterrorism cooperation to work together against the problems that are being exported from Mali and to help Bamako and ECOWAS with the AU and the UN support as well deal with the security threats inside of Mali,” a senior State Department official said. “The Secretary made reference a number of times to the regional leadership Algeria displays in counterterrorism.”
The official said Clinton thanked Bouteflika “for the very strong security support that we had for our Embassy around September 11 and afterwards.”
“Algeria was another place where extremists tried to stir up trouble against our Embassy and were unsuccessful,” the official added.
The State Department issued an “emergency message” for U.S. citizens the day after the Libya assault, warning that “groups, via different social media websites, are calling for demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy beginning at 12:00 p.m. local time today to protest a range of issues.”
While not specifically mentioning the anti-Muhammed video originally blamed in the Benghazi attack, the notice also didn’t warn U.S. citizens of terrorist activity in the region.
Benghazi — and even the presidential election in a matter of days — was outshadowed by coverage of Hurricane Sandy today.
“I tell you, I’m going to fight every step of the way to just make sure that the truth surfaces and, thus far, that has not happened,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said today on Fox.
While Clinton may have tried to deflect the criticism with diplomacy, President Obama said in an interview aired today on MSNBC he takes “offense” at “some suggestion in any way we haven’t tried to make sure that the American public knew as information was coming in what we believed happened” on Sept. 11 in Benghazi.