The Jacksonian Politics of “13 Hours”

by Stanley Kurtz

Will the just-released film, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, hurt Hillary Clinton and President Obama politically? It will, and rightly so. At minimum, Obama and Clinton did too little to help America’s embattled Libyan ambassador, Chris Stevens, and his defenders. And malfeasance at the top may well have gone much further. This movie brings the whole sorry Benghazi episode unforgettably to life, and that can’t help but be a problem for the president and his former Secretary of State.

But the political consequences of 13 Hours won’t stop there. This movie will help to lock-in and reinforce the already well-advanced Jacksonian trend in public attitudes toward American foreign-policy, especially among Republicans. That could have immediate consequences in the primaries, since the audience for 13 Hours will disproportionately consist of Republican voters.

Through its graphic depiction of America’s policy-debacle in Libya, 13 Hours brings to life a whole series of unpleasant truths about the Middle East: that the region oscillates between dictatorship, chaos, and jihadism; that notwithstanding some courageous and committed Arab friends, our military allies in the region can be ineffective and unreliable under pressure; that Middle-Eastern democratization on any policy-relevant time-scale is a pipe dream.

Perhaps more important than the movie’s depiction of a chaotic and collapsing Middle East is its portrayal of divided American attitudes toward the region—not divisions between hawks and doves, but the rift between different kinds of hawks.

Running through the movie’s gripping battle scenes is a tension between CIA spooks and the men at arms. This is cultural class-warfare of the kind you often see in country music videos: over-educated upper-middle-class types get all the prestige and attention, while the blue-collar Joes who do the truly hard work get dumped-on and ignored. And when push comes to shove, it’s the working-class heroes who stand up to the worst the world can dish out, saving their supposed betters’ behinds in the process.

That’s the personal drama of the movie, but it carries an added political message. The CIA folks are utterly naïve about a Middle East collapsing all around them. They believe that Libyan gratitude for America’s role in toppling Gaddafi will protect them. The CIA contingent and especially Ambassador Stevens also believe that with some well-placed American support, democracy may be just around the corner in Libya. With vast on-the-ground experience in the Middle East between them, the men at arms have nothing but eye-rolls for the experts’ misplaced optimism. And it’s the soldiers who turn out to be right.

Fast-forward to the Republican presidential primaries and the emerging division between the Jacksonian candidates, Trump and Cruz, and the Establishment hawks, led by Rubio and Bush. In every conceivable way, 13 Hours reinforces the views of the Jacksonians: that deposing dictators leads to chaos; that overwhelming force counts for more than diplomacy; that democracy isn’t coming to the Middle East in our lifetimes. And the blue-collar Jacksonian heroes of the film are perfect stand-ins for the blue-collar Jacksonian voters flocking to Trump and Cruz.

By rights, Hillary Clinton ought to be as vulnerable for her advocacy of the disastrous Libyan campaign—not to mention her misplaced optimism about the “Arab Spring”—as for any malfeasance or deception regarding the attack on Benghazi. But since attitudes toward the Libya campaign cut across party lines, Hillary has so far escaped blame for her ill-considered support of this intervention. After some early references to America’s intervention, 13 Hours ends by noting that Libya has become a failed state and a training ground for ISIS, subtly pointing the finger at Hillary’s misjudgment on the Libya campaign in a way that most Republicans so far have not.

What about 13 Hours and the foreign-policy rivalry between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio? I don’t believe that Cruz and Rubio are quite as far apart on foreign policy as their rhetoric indicates. Even a supporter of the “freedom agenda” like Marco Rubio is bound to be somewhat chastened by events on the ground in the Middle East, not to mention the domestic political constraints that even the toughest hawks must now consider. Nor do I think that Ted Cruz, despite his good points about the dangers of overthrowing Middle Eastern dictators, would be averse to undermining Syria’s Assad under the right circumstances, given the blow this would deliver to Iran. The Middle East is a cauldron of conflicting constraints, and no policy approach is likely to remain pure and uncompromised.

That said, Cruz and Rubio clearly have different policy centers of gravity when it comes to the Middle East. Rubio is the more enthusiastic interventionist and democratizer, while Cruz is a Jacksonian skeptic who wants to restrict our interventions to the protection of American interests more strictly construed, in which cases he is prepared to resort to overwhelming force.

Cruz’s position is much closer to the current national mood on both the left and the right. America’s already well-advanced Jacksonian turn helps explain why Trump and Cruz are leading the Republican race to begin with. With Republican primary voters everywhere flocking to see 13 Hours, this movie will only reinforce that trend.

If either Cruz or Trump gets the Republican nomination, they will take the Libya issue to Hillary in unprecedented fashion. Cruz’s strong conservatism has been portrayed as a danger in the general election, but his Jacksonian side will allow him appeal to independents in a way that the Establishment candidates cannot. Much more than a problem for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, 13 Hours may help push the public in the direction of the GOP’s Jacksonians in both the primaries and the general election.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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