Oedipal Blindness in Benghazi


A comprehensive article in the New York Times and, this week, a Senate Intelligence Committee report have given us a pretty good sense of what happened in Benghazi in 2012 when the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Both the president and Hillary Clinton bear some responsibility for the deaths. On the other hand, despite GOP claims that the administration has been engaging in a cover-up and lying about it, it now appears that things were as Susan Rice, the CIA, and the State Department claimed.

Indeed, the mistakes made by the administration, and by the ambassador himself, were the kind of mistakes virtually every American administration has made over the past 100 years, and perhaps even longer. Benghazi is a story of arrogance and willful blindness. It’s a story as old as Oedipus.

Amy Davidson of The New Yorker sums up the central narrative of America’s misstep, noting that Benghazi was,

in many ways, a catalogue of what can happen when one decides to act as though a situation is what one wishes it to be, not what it is. Benghazi, the report sensibly points out, was a dangerous place, and a lot of people knew it. But it was also supposed to be an enchanted place, the birthplace of a rebellion America had generously fostered and the home of scrappy militias who were grateful to us. We had, supposedly, already arrived at the happily-ever-after part of the Libyan tale. Maybe that’s why the Obama Administration, in particular the State Department—led by Hillary Clinton—didn’t consider all the ways the plot could turn, or that the epilogue might involve the attacks on an American diplomatic installation and a C.I.A. annex.

Put this way, my mind can’t help but revert to such phrases as Lyndon Johnson’s “hearts and minds” and Dick Cheney’s “greeted as liberators.” In a hubris prompted by our position as the world’s preeminent world power, we think people will be grateful as we bestow pax Americana on them. And to be fair, some people are, as indicated by the Libyans who came to the ambassador’s rescue. But there are always forces at work far more complex than we anticipate and our liberation fairy tale gets ambushed by reality. Some of the same Republicans who are castigating Obama for Benghazi are urging him to repeat the same misstep in Syria and Iran.

America is Oedipus, a very proud and can-do type of man who refuses to step aside when a king and his retinue demand that he do so. (That king, of course, is his father, and Oedipus kills him and his entourage in the ensuing battle.) Oedipus courageously takes on the deadly sphinx that has smothered the city of Thebes and he is willing to step into kingship. There are many ways in which he, like the United States, is admirable.

But the story of Oedipus is also a story of the blindness that can accompany power. Confronted with a plague to the city, he assumes that he can put things right by the force of his will. He is so confident in his narrative that when people start to suggest truths that he doesn’t want to hear, he imagines elaborate conspiracies against him and labels friends as traitors. Here he is suspecting the seer Teiresias and his brother-in-law Creon of plotting against him:

What spite and envy follow in your train!
See, for this crown the State conferred on me.
A gift, a thing I sought not, for this crown
The trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned
This mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind.
Say, sirrah, hast thou ever proved thyself
A prophet? When the riddling Sphinx was here
Why hadst thou no deliverance for this folk?
And yet the riddle was not to be solved
By guess-work but required the prophet’s art;
Wherein thou wast found lacking; neither birds
Nor sign from heaven helped thee, but I came,
The simple Oedipus; I stopped her mouth
By mother wit, untaught of auguries.
This is the man whom thou wouldst undermine,
In hope to reign with Creon in my stead.
Methinks that thou and thine abettor soon
Will rue your plot to drive the scapegoat out.
Thank thy grey hairs that thou hast still to learn
What chastisement such arrogance deserves.

When Oedipus finally learns a truth that is self evident to others, he is devastated.

Unlike many Greek tragic heroes, however, Oedipus has a second chance to get things right. In Oedipus at Colonus, he has acquired such wisdom from his suffering that different city states are competing for him. Will our own leaders arrive at similar wisdom? Every president experiences Benghazis, but the important question is whether Obama and Clinton will learn the right lessons from the tragedy. Unlike Cheney, who appears to have learned nothing from Iraq, perhaps Obama is avoiding deep engagement in Syria and seeking peace with Iran because of this Libyan reminder of what can go wrong.

If Hillary has learned the right lessons from her mistakes in Benghazi, then she may prove to a more trustworthy commander-in-chief than candidates caught up in American fantasies.

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