Transcript: Clinton’s response to Sen. Chris Murphy’s question on the State Department’s role in North Africa

Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Q&A between Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was held on Jan. 23, 2013: 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.):

…I think if some people on this committee want to call the tragedy in Benghazi the worst since 9/11, it misunderstands the nature of 4,000 Americans plus lost over 10 years of war in Iraq under false pretenses. It was fought under false pretenses but it was also fought, I think, because we had a misunderstanding of what we could do and what we could manage in that region, what was under our control.

And I guess my question to you, Secretary Clinton, is of that – what are our expectations going forward in North Africa? And you referenced this in your opening remarks about actually what is under our control.

One of the criticisms in the review board is that we didn’t have a full understanding of this complicated set of allegiances between jihadist groups that are shifting on an almost daily basis. And I worry sometimes when we do this retrospective handwringing over a tragedy like this that we sometimes give the impression to the American people that we could know all, see all, and control all in a region that we certainly are just beginning to stand up that kind of presence that we may ultimately need and want.

And so I guess I present this as that open-ended question to you is: As we move forward, especially for new members of this committee, we’re probably going to be spending a lot more time on Africa and North Africa than this committee has ever spent before. What are the expectations that we should set for the American public as to what we can control, what we can know, and potentially what changes on the diplomatic side that we need to make in order to have a more solid footprint in relationships with neighbors there who may be willing to help us when it comes to intelligence and intervention with this very complicated landscape of jihadist groups?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

…It’s a multi-part question but it raises really the heart of the challenge we face. We are in a new reality. We are trying to make sense of changes that nobody had predicted but which we’re going to have to live with. I can’t do justice in the time that I have left here to the really important issues that you have highlighted.

But I think first and foremost, let’s be honest. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s avoid turning everything into a political football. Let’s instead try to just say look, this is unprecedented. We don’t know what’s going to happen in this new revolutionary environment across North Africa and the Middle East. But let’s see what lessons we can learn from what worked in the past, see what is applicable, and then let’s bring people together who will really have the kind of open discussion that used to be the hallmark of this committee and of the Senate.

People used to have hearings where it wasn’t just to have administration officials come up and ask the questions and go on from there but really to delve into what works and what doesn’t work, bring in outside experts, let them debate in front of you, try to figure out what the best information going forward is.

I mean, you know over the last weeks, I’ve pulled writings from what you would call very conservative and very liberal commentators who kind of reached the same conclusion about what we should be doing in this region. We have to approach it with humility but we’ve got some real assets if we deploy them right and helping to rebuild security is essential.

You know, we did it in Columbia – it took a decade. We did it directly in Columbia. We did it as a partner with others in Somalia. And there are a lot of examples all the way across the world.

Let’s be smart and learn from what we’ve done in the past and see what can be transferred into the present and the future, and let’s be honest in trying to assess it to the best of our abilities…

…Put forth the policies that wouldn’t go lurching from administration to administration but would be a steady one like we did in Columbia, like we did in the Cold War. Let’s be smart about this. We have more assets than anybody in the world but I think we’ve gotten a little bit, you know, off track in trying to figure out how best to utilize them.



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