The dramatic testimony of Gregory Hicks, former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya, has shone the media spotlight on what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack. Republican lawmakers and conservative journalists have managed to raise substantial and serious questions about the administration’s response to the attack, both as it was occurring and in the days that followed. The mainstream news media have been obliged to follow suit, putting White House spokesmen on the defensive, even if charges of a “cover up” remain far from proven.
But, oddly enough, almost no one is talking about what I regard as the real scandal here–the shameful failure of the Obama administration to extend state-building assistance to Libya’s pro-Western leaders after having helped them to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The inability of the Libyan government to control its own territory created the conditions that led to the 2012 attack–and those conditions have not changed since.
Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information. His article was built around the emails released by a group of Republican House committee chairmen after a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 anniversary attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Those emails detailed the efforts of the administration to craft talking points that downplayed or omitted information the administration already knew about the role of Islamic terrorist actors in the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
The resulting talking points were designed to mislead the American public about what happened, because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership at Foggy Bottom was marked by negligence and incompetence, and the new talking points were written to exonerate her. But Hayes provided a key piece of information: names. Specifically, he revealed the authors of some of those emails. As a result, it’s far easier to piece together what happened. Hayes explains that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns that the original talking points too accurately portrayed the incompetence at the highest levels of State. Hayes continues:
The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.
We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).
Barack Obama became president in no small part by castigating the Bush administration for its errors in Iraq. Now, ironically enough, as president he appears bent on repeating the biggest Bush error of all—namely toppling an existing Middle East strongman without doing enough to build up a stable state in his wake.
Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times has filed a disturbing report from the southern Libyan city of Sabha that vividly shows the consequences of administration inaction. He finds, almost a year and a half after Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, a total absence of Libyan security forces. Instead ill-armed, unpaid militiamen are “battling smugglers, illegal migrants bound for Europe and armed extremists who stream across a swath of the Sahara near the porous intersection of southern Libya, Chad, Niger, and Algeria.” That is, they are battling these threats when they are not battling each other—which is a more common occurrence.
After criticizing French plans to counter Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in northern Mali, the Obama administration is slowly increasing its support to the French, as the French military conducts a mission vital to U.S. interests as well as their own.
Mali is a beautiful country, one which I visited as a tourist a decade ago. (My thoughts from the time are encapsulated in this New Republic article). It was also the Muslim majority country which Freedom House had, for years, rated as most free. Despite being one of the poorest countries on earth and democratic, Mali was for years ignored by the United States.
One of the most memorable moments for many liberal activists from Monday’s inauguration came with President Obama’s remarks on gay rights. Obama made two references to gay rights during his speech; the first mention (Stonewall) came juxtaposed with mention of Seneca Falls and Selma, locations famous for advances in women’s rights and civil rights, respectively. Obama’s second mention was far more overt:
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
Quietly yesterday, however, Obama press secretary Jay Carney tempered those remarks. The Washington Examiner reports:
Today marks four months since the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, which killed our ambassador and three other Americans. Justice still has not been done—and it looks increasingly unlikely that it will ever be done.
Just a couple of days ago a Tunisian court freed Ali Harza, a Tunisian man who was one of the few to be charged in connection with the assault. This is what comes from giving the FBI the lead in the response to this assault on American territory. The criminal investigation appears to be going nowhere fast, which is hardly surprising given how hard it is to gather evidence and bring indictments under such chaotic conditions. The only mystery is why this isn’t being treated as what it is—an act of war on the United States that deserves a military response.
One of the many unanswered questions of the Benghazi attack is why it took so long for CIA backup forces to get from Tripoli to Benghazi. According to a new Senate report, this may have been an intentional delay by the Libyan government. Eli Lake reports:
The biggest recent development—which was overshadowed by the fiscal cliff negotiations—came on New Year’s Eve, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a report that raised the question of whether Libyan officials assisted the Benghazi terrorists. The report found that a team of CIA contractors dispatched from Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of the attacks waited at least three hours after arriving at the Benghazi airport before departing to the scene because of negotiations with Libyan government officials. According to the report, members of Congress still don’t know the exact reason for the delay. “Was it simply the result of a difficult Libyan bureaucracy and a chaotic environment or was it part of a plot to keep American help from reaching the Americans under siege in Benghazi?” the report asks.
Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.
She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.
Since the terrorist attack in Benghazi killed our ambassador there and three others, I’ve been asking just how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has managed to avoid accountability for what was clearly her State Department’s failure. Others have begun asking that same question, including former Clinton administration official Aaron David Miller. Miller offered a few possible answers, one of which was that her expected run for the presidency in 2016–which is already in motion–has convinced the Washington establishment to stay on her good side.
Miller was asking the question in the context of the strangely effusive praise she has been receiving for her work as secretary of state, even though she has been surely unremarkable–and that was before the debacle in Benghazi (and, I would add, Foggy Bottom’s failure with regard to the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN). It’s possible that Miller is right–that most people don’t actually believe what they’re saying about Clinton, but are simply speaking flattery to power. But yesterday’s release of the inquiry into Benghazi should inspire at least some honesty about Clinton’s manifest failure there. It also explains why Republicans have latched on to Benghazi with such force: as the report shows, the tragedy in Benghazi was evidence of the failure of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy across the administration.
As if to buttress my earlier item on the dangers of outsourcing support for Syrian rebels to the Qataris and other Gulf Arabs, the New York Times carries this report on the worrisome consequences of earlier outsourcing the support of Libyan rebels to Qatar.
The newspaper reports: “The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.”
Part of the reason Senate foreign policy leaders–such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and newcomer Kelly Ayotte, among others–have focused so much attention on Susan Rice in the last few weeks is that it is the first time they have been able to keep the press focused on the story and get answers to the many outstanding questions about the Benghazi attack and its aftermath. On that note, the New York Times has a welcome story today widening the scope. The talking points that Rice is getting grilled over are only part of a larger story that needs telling. But moving this discussion away from the talking points probably won’t make it any easier on the White House.
The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi was a symptom of a larger problem with the administration’s attitude toward the intervention. “Leading from behind” in Libya succeeded in killing Muammar Gaddafi, but the rush to the exits left a lawless country behind. And that condition persists to this day, and shines a light on the myth vs. the reality of President Obama’s strategy in the North African nation. In the third and final presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Obama touted Libya as a success because he seemed to believe that cutting off the head of the snake—Gaddafi—would subdue the unrest in Gaddafi’s wake. When asked about the Benghazi debacle and his larger Libya policy, the president said:
It is easy to lose sight of it amid the breathless, National Enquirer-style reporting on David Petraeus, John Allen, and their communications with various women, but there are other important things happening in the world. Among those events is France’s decision to recognize the new Syrian opposition council, National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the country’s rightful government. This is an important step marking the first time that another state has extended official recognition to the Syrian rebels who have just organized, under much external prodding, this new coalition led by Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the widely respected former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. France has also said it would consider providing arms to the rebel forces.
Once again, as in Libya last year, this places France—this time under President Francois Hollande, rather than Nicolas Sarkozy—at the forefront of important events in the Middle East. President Obama and the U.S. continue to lag behind in trying to influence events in another important country, in spite of the major role played by American diplomats in helping to organize the Syrian National Coalition. That is a major problem, because there is only so much France—or other states such as Qatar and Turkey, which are eager to topple Bashar Assad—can do.
Remember this clip from President Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview on September 12, where Obama seems to agree the Benghazi attack was more than just a spontaneous demonstration? CBS released it on October 19, and has used it to support the president’s claim that he called the attack “terrorism” from day one.
But, as Bret Baier reports, that wasn’t the whole interview. CBS has just released new footage of Obama declining to call the attack terrorism when pressed, saying it’s “it’s too early to tell”:
The Associated Press reports that intelligence officials are pushing back on the Fox News story from last week, which reported that CIA officials in Washington told its officers in Benghazi to stand down when the attack on the consulate began, and that requests from security officers for military support were rejected:
According to the detailed timeline senior officials laid out Thursday, the first call to the CIA base came in at about 9:40 p.m., and less than 25 minutes later about the team headed to the consulate. En route they tried to get additional assistance, including some heavier weapons, but were unable to get much aid from the Libyan militias.
The team finally got to the consulate, which was engulfed in heavy diesel smoke and flames, and they went in to get the consulate staff out. By 11:30 p.m., all of the U.S. personnel, except Stevens, left and drove back to the annex, with some taking fire from militants along the way.
By that time, one of the Defense Department’s unarmed Predator drones had arrived to provide overhead surveillance. …
The second CIA team headed to the annex, and arrived after 5 a.m., just before the base came under attack again.
Earlier today I wrote about the baffling failure to call in the U.S. military to rescue our diplomats besieged in Benghazi. That failure becomes even more puzzling if this Fox News article is right. Reporter Jennifer Griffin writes that former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were working as CIA security personnel at a CIA annex not far from the consulate, and they not only saw the entire attack unfold, but communicated what they saw to Washington in real time.
They wanted to aid the diplomats at the consulate but were told to “stand down”; they ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate and brought back the remaining diplomats, minus the ambassador, who was already dead. Then they took more fire at the CIA annex–this was where Woods and Doherty were killed by a mortar shell at 4 a.m., nearly seven hours after the initial assault began. But their urgent cries for help were not answered. Griffin writes:
As Jonathan wrote earlier, Charles Woods, father of the former SEAL Tyrone Woods, is questioning why the Obama administration did not respond with military force to rescue the Americans trapped in Benghazi on September 11. If action had been taken promptly, Ty Woods and the others might have survived.
He’s not the only one raising good questions about the lack of a response. Bing West, a distinguished combat correspondent and former assistant secretary of defense, has produced a timeline of the Benghazi attacks, which went on for most of the night, suggesting there was plenty of time for substantial U.S. forces to scramble from the U.S. base at Sigonella, Sicily, located almost exactly as far away from Benghazi as the Libyan capital of Tripoli, from whence a small, ill-armed quick-reaction force of 22 men was finally sent. “Stationed at Sigonella,” he notes, “were Special Operations Forces, transport aircraft, and attack aircraft — a much more formidable force than 22 men from the embassy.”
Officials have already speculated that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was involved in the Benghazi attack, but CNN reports al-Qaeda in Iraq may be linked as well. AQI has been regaining strength since U.S. troops withdrew last year:
U.S. intelligence believes that assailants connected to al Qaeda in Iraq were among the core group that attacked the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, a U.S. government official told CNN.
That would represent the second al Qaeda affiliate associated with the deadly September 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. …
The latest intelligence suggests the core group of suspects from the first wave of the attack on the Benghazi mission numbered between 35 to 40. Around a dozen of the attackers are believed to be connected to either al Qaeda in Iraq or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the government official said.
The attack had two waves: The first targeted the main compound where Stevens and another diplomatic official were believed killed. A second stage a few hours later involved an annex building approximately a mile away.
It’s too bad the White House press briefing was on Air Force One today, because watching Jay Carney try to spin Mark Hosenball’s Reuters scoop would have been fun. Unfortunately we’ll have to make due with just a transcript:
“There was a variety of information coming in,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday on Air Force One. “The whole point of an intelligence community and what they do is to assess strands of information and make judgements about what happened and who was responsible.”
“This is an open source, unclassified email about a posting on a Facebook site,” Carney said. “I would also note that within a few hours the organization itself claimed that it had not been responsible. Neither should be taken as fact. That is why there is an investigation.”
Hillary Clinton also dismissed the story, accusing reporters of “cherry-picking” information:
The White House was informed that Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia took credit for the Benghazi attack just two hours after it happened, according to emails obtained by Reuters. Yet the Obama administration maintained it was a spontaneous reaction to the Muhammad video, and downplayed the role of any militant groups for two weeks after the attack. As of today, the administration has never even told us Ansar al-Sharia claimed credit. We had to find out from the investigative press:
A third email, also marked SBU and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time, carried the subject line: “Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.”
The message reported: “Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli.”
While some information identifying recipients of this message was redacted from copies of the messages obtained by Reuters, a government source said that one of the addresses to which the message was sent was the White House Situation Room, the president’s secure command post.
Other addressees included intelligence and military units as well as one used by the FBI command center, the source said.