I have been quite critical recently of the Obama administration foreign policy that has been associated with one disaster after another in, among other places, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. As Bret Stephens writes, “Like geese, Americans are being forced to swallow foreign-policy fiascoes at a rate faster than we can possibly chew, much less digest.”
So it is only fit and proper to give credit where it’s due—in this case for the apprehension by Special Operations Forces of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the reported ringleader of the terrorist cell which attacked the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and killed the US ambassador to Libya. This has been a while coming but it is fitting justice nevertheless.
Republicans who seek to criticize this coup are, I believe, off-base. There are two grounds for criticism: First that the president reportedly sat on this intelligence for fear that a raid would destabilize the government of Libya and second that Khattala is being remanded for trial in a federal district court, not sent to Guantanamo for trial by a special terrorist tribunal. Neither criticism stands up to much scrutiny.
In the first place, it is perfectly legitimate to balance the benefits of a Special Operations raid against the political costs of action. Presumably Obama finally determined that Libya is so chaotic and the government so powerless that this raid would do nothing further to destabilize the situation. That is itself a sad indictment of U.S. policy (or lack thereof) in Libya but it is that policy that should be subject to criticism, not the raid itself.
As for trying Khattala in a civilian court: This should not be a matter of dogmatism. Many top terrorists have been tried and convicted in civilian courts in the past. The point of Gitmo and the special terrorist tribunals is that they offer a separate venue for handling terrorists who are judged dangerous by the intelligence community but whom prosecutors are unable to convict in a civilian court. In the case of Khattala, the Justice Department is apparently confident of winning a conviction in district court, so there is no reason not to go ahead with a prosecution. Khattala is actually more likely to remain locked up if he is sent to a super-max prison than if he goes to Gitmo where far too many dangerous detainees have been released.
It goes without saying that the capture of Khattala, however welcome, hardly reverses by itself the tide of disasters that has swept over U.S. foreign policy in recent months. But for an administration that has not had a lot (or any) victories lately, it is a welcome win—and one that Republicans should welcome for signaling a willingness to use force against America’s enemies.