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:
But I think it’s important to step back and think about what happened in Libya. Now, keep in mind that I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to — without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq — liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans.
And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, America’s our friend. We stand with them. Now that represents the opportunity we have to take advantage of.
Later on in the debate, the discussion turned to Syria, and Romney used the subject as an opportunity to criticize Obama’s lack of leadership on the world stage. Obama changed the subject back to Libya, and gave a very revealing answer:
But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.
Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job.
To Obama, “finishing the job” meant getting rid of Gaddafi. That was, no doubt, part of the job, but to Obama that was it. Once we got rid of Gaddafi, the mission was over. This is in full concert with the president’s hearty embrace of targeted assassination; it is a definable mission that requires no follow-up.
But picking off terrorists in Yemen or Pakistan or Afghanistan is much different than taking out a head of state. And we are seeing the full consequence of this approach today. Elsewhere in today’s paper, the Times reports that Libya seems frozen in anarchist chaos:
“It is impossible for members of a brigade to arrest another,” said Wanis al-Sharif, the top Interior Ministry official in eastern Libya. “And it would be impossible that I give the order to arrest someone in a militia. Impossible.”
The violence was thrown into sharp relief after the September attack on the United States intelligence and diplomatic villas. Libyan and American officials accused militants associated with Libya’s ubiquitous militias, and specifically, members of Ansar al-Shariah.
“The killing of the ambassador brought back the true reality of this insecure state,” said Ali Tarhouni, a former Libyan finance minister who leads a new political party. “It was a major setback, to this city and its psyche.”
Justice itself is a dangerous notion here and throughout Libya, where a feeble government lacks the power to protect citizens or to confront criminal suspects. It barely has the means to arm its police force, let alone rein in or integrate the militias or confront former rebel fighters suspected of killings.
It seems to me this is a discussion McCain and the others would like to have. As for the administration, widening the discussion may take the heat off of Rice, but it’s doubtful it would make the issue any more comfortable for the White House.