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US says Libya attack was terrorism: Was it unprepared for Arab Spring fallout?

Now that the White House says a 'terrorist attack' struck the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, questions could arise about President Obama's Middle East policy in the wake of the Arab Spring.

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“What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm US interests,” Obama said. “We don’t know yet,” he added, “and so we are going to continue to investigate this.”

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department have mounted investigations into the Benghazi attack.

The administration’s explanation of what happened in Benghazi marks a shift in its earlier assertions that the attack was spontaneous and showed no signs of preplanning. That position came under stiff criticism from a number of Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain, who cast doubt on the “spontaneous” characterization because of the intensity of the attack and the heavy weaponry employed in it.

The tweaking of the administration’s position on what happened could be the result of new information that has come in, Mr. White says – or it could simply be the result of building pressure on the White House.

“There’s always pressure in these situations to produce something concrete even when they don’t have it,” he says. “The administration is under pressure from Congress, the electorate, and the media to say something more definitive than what they said before, and it could be they just decided to go with something.”

Even with very little clarity on what happened in Benghazi, says White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, the US did know plenty about eastern Libya: that Al Qaeda, its affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other Islamist extremist groups are operating in the area; and that “the government doesn’t have anything approaching control” of the eastern portion of the country.

It is also clear, White says, that the US installations in a newly liberated Libya (and in particular the consulate in Benghazi) were not secure compounds “hardened” to current State Department specifications. But, he also says, that kind of construction takes time, while diplomatic efforts could not wait.

“There are times in diplomacy when you cannot adequately protect your diplomats in the short term,” he says.

On the other hand, he rejects some speculation that Ambassador Stevens, in his enthusiasm for Benghazi, where he had previously served as envoy to Libya’s rebels, may have played down the dangers.

“Chris was not a hot-dog, and he did not disobey orders,” White says. “That makes me certain there was no red flag before this about getting out to Benghazi, because he was extremely dedicated to his people [staff] and would have never knowingly put them at undue risk.”

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