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When Will Obama Respond to Benghazi Attack?

Libya’s prime minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur — who was voted in on Sept. 12 — was removed in a no-confidence vote on Sunday. As the Washington Post reports, this could mean further delays for the FBI investigation into the Benghazi attack:

The decision by Libya’s legislature means that the government may remain without permanent, democratically-elected leadership for many weeks. But without a government in place, the investigation into the attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans may be a low priority for Libyans. The extent to which the U.S. part of the investigation can operate freely in Libya also may be hampered by the domestic political chaos.

Some Libyan officials have raised sovereignty concerns about extensive FBI operations in Benghazi, the eastern coastal city where the Americans were killed at two U.S. government outposts. Safety concerns also have kept the FBI away from the city,although it visited Thursday for an extensive sweep of the U.S. mission there.

This may actually be welcome news to the State Department, which didn’t seem particularly interested in helping the investigation along in the first place. But we’re now almost a month out from the attack, and the Obama administration still hasn’t said whether it will deal with the terrorists behind it. Will it treat it as a criminal act or a military incident? The ouster of the Libyan PM makes both options more difficult.

If they go the criminal route, with the FBI working with the Libyan government to capture and prosecute the perpetrators, they could run across multiple problems. As WaPo points out, this may not be a priority for the Libyan government at the moment. There’s also the question of where to prosecute the terrorists — can the U.S. risk allowing them to go to trial in Libya? Or trust the prison system in a country that’s still undergoing a tumultuous transition? Trying the terrorists in the U.S. brings its own batch of problems. Even if the FBI is able to build a strong case from its late investigation, there will be controversy over giving terrorists a court platform, and debates over where to put them if they are convicted.

Responding with military force is clearly the better option, but the removal of the PM also makes it more complicated. The leadership vacuum could provide bad actors with an opening to demagogue U.S. intervention in the region. WaPo reports that Libyan officials have already criticized the FBI investigation as an infringement on Libyan sovereignty, and military operations could exacerbate that. The Obama administration has touted the U.S. relationship with Libya as one of its Arab Spring successes, and may be concerned about putting the U.S. at odds with the new government. In terms of U.S. politics, a drone strike or other military operation could also anger Obama’s left-wing base before the election.

None of these options are without risk. But the riskiest one of all would be to do nothing. The Obama administration may want to wait until after the election to respond, but each day of inaction makes him look weaker to the American public and our allies and enemies abroad. Thursday, the day Vice President Biden debates Paul Ryan, will mark one month since the consulate attack. Obama won’t be able to put off a response — or at least an explanation for the delay — for much longer.