Obama’s wager came at a heavy price.
In the week preceding September 11, 2012, the Middle East was rocked by angry protests against a YouTube video produced in the United States, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which portrayed the Prophet Mohammad as a child abuser and homosexual. Demonstrations in Tunisia, Morocco, and Sudan all focused on US diplomatic facilities, but were contained by local authorities. During the day on September 11, more violent protests broke out in Cairo, Egypt and Sanaa, Yemen. In both cities, US embassies were attacked and torched, though there was no loss of life and damage was minimal to moderate.
Things would be different in Libya. At 9:40 P.M. local time in Benghazi, a large group of men – perhaps as many as 60 – armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), heavy machine guns, and assault rifles arrived at the U. S. consulate in vehicles. They proceeded to mount what appeared to observers on the ground to be a coordinated infantry assault of the compound. As it happened, the U. S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was in Benghazi that evening rather than at his embassy in Tripoli some 600 miles away. As the assault began, Stevens and Sean Smith, an aide, hid out in a safe room in one of the guest villas. When that building was set on fire, the men attempted to leave, but were forced back inside by the fighting on the grounds.
At the same time, a six-person response team from a nearby CIA annex was making its way to the scene of the fighting. The team managed to temporarily repel the attackers and attempted to rescue Stevens and Smith. They found Smith’s body, but not the Ambassador’s. A short time later, another assault commenced at the CIA annex the response team had left behind, this time with mortars, RPGs, and heavy machine guns. The Americans on site took positions on the roof of the building and exchanged gunfire with their attackers until around 3:30 A.M. Two Americans, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former U. S. Navy SEALS, were killed. In all, four Americans were killed, along with nearly one hundred of the assailants. Three Americans were wounded and thirty evacuated from Benghazi.
The attack in Benghazi might have gone down in history as a tragic event in a relatively lawless country but for three factors. First, Ambassador Stevens had repeatedly asked for additional security at US government facilities in the weeks and months leading up to the attack. Readers will recall that rebels operating with American air support had deposed Libya’s long-time dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, in late 2011. The country was still largely ungoverned, and many Islamist militias were operating with relative impunity. In memos requesting additional security, Stevens called the environment “unpredictable, volatile, and violent.” Despite this, no additional personnel or firepower was provided. Second, during the actual assault, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission who was monitoring the situation back in Tripoli, made repeated requests for special forces, air, or drone support of the consulate’s defenders in Benghazi. Again, despite the fact that the assault went on for nearly six hours and the abundance of U. S. military assets in the Mediterranean and Italy, no help was forthcoming.
But it is the third factor that is perhaps the most disturbing. In the days and weeks that followed the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the others, senior officials of the American government appear to have deliberately misled the public about the nature of the attacks. Almost immediately, the Administration tried desperately to link it with earlier protests that had occurred elsewhere over the YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The morning after the attack, for instance, President Obama personally made the linkage, saying, “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.” An initial talking points memo drafted by State Department during the overnight hours noted that the attack was coordinated, but was later changed at the direction of White House officials, who feared it would be used to embarrass the President.
Then, five days after the attack, U. N. Ambassador Susan Rice told ABC News that, “Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous – not a premeditated – response to what had transpired in Cairo.” But a September 12 email from Beth Jones, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, to the Libyan Ambassador to the United States had noted that Ansar Al-Sharia, which had taken credit for the attack overnight, was affiliated with Islamic terror organizations. Rice dug the hole even deeper: “We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy … to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo,” she said. “And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons… And it then evolved from there.” But according to Deputy Chief Hicks, there was no mention by diplomatic personnel of a demonstration gone awry, and that “the YouTube video was a non-event in Libya.” Perhaps the most damning indictment of Rice came from the guest who appeared immediately before her that Sunday, Mohammed al-Magariaf, the President of Libya, who said his government had “no doubt that this was preplanned, predetermined.”
Each of these factors – the refusal to augment security in Libya, the timidity of response during the battle itself, and the deliberate misrepresentation of what really happened – is inexplicable on their own. Although then-Secretary of State Clinton has since complained that the dearth of security personnel is the fault of Congressional funding, that still doesn’t explain why personnel couldn’t have been moved from relatively placid posts – Canada comes to mind, or Switzerland – to Libya in the weeks and months leading up to September 11. The US Marine Corps’ Embassy Security Group typically does the heavy lifting for consular security, and yet there were no Marines posted in Benghazi, in an environment that Ambassador Stevens had described as “unpredictable, violent, and volatile.” Surely there are enough Marines to go around.
During the attack, the United States had more than enough resources to stem the tide. A Special Forces team was on its way to the airport in Tripoli to board a plane for Benghazi when the Special Operations Command, Africa (SOCAFRICA) called them back. “You can't go now,” they were told. “You don't have the authority to go now.” According to Deputy Chief Hicks, scrambling some fighter aircraft from a base about an hour away from Benghazi might have done a lot of good. “They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them,” he said. And yet the then-Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, insisted that no U. S. assets could have reached Benghazi within 24 hours, an astonishing claim.
Finally, it is mystifying why the President and his foreign policy and defense team would exert themselves to such a degree in trying to make the case that what everyone on the ground knew wasn’t in fact the truth. There was and is no evidence that the Benghazi attack originated in a demonstration over the American YouTube video; that was pure conjecture from the beginning. Worse, it was a deliberate contradiction of what Hicks, Jones, and others had seen, heard, and said.
So, how did it happen? In the Benghazi affair and its aftermath, it is legitimate to pose the old Latin question that is familiar to all lawyers: “Cui bono?” (Who benefits?) In hindsight, the Administrations’ missteps are inexplicable unless one considers the broader political context, and especially the presidential election that loomed a mere eight weeks away on the night of the Benghazi attack. Libya was supposed to have been an unquestioned triumph for the “Obama” way of war: the selective deployment of U. S. air assets in support of a popular uprising against a hated dictator. It would have been a gamble to augment security in Libya, particularly with Marines, and thereby expose the President to charges of putting “boots on the ground” and widening yet another Middle East war. So, the Administration wagered that things would remain manageable until after the election.
Only they didn’t remain manageable. On the evening of September 11, the Administration lost its first bet. It then made another: that the “attack” was really just a “protest” like the ones in Cairo and Sanaa – ugly, but not lethal. And so, additional forces weren’t sent in. The Special Forces team that might have turned the tide wasn’t given the “authority” it needed to board that C-130. U. S. aircraft that might have frightened off the attackers were not scrambled. Unfortunately, that bet was lost, too. The final wager was that the Administration could manage the aftermath, the “story line.” And except for some of the President Obama’s most neuralgic critics on the right, that wager appeared to have succeeded, largely due to media indifference – until this week, when the Benghazi “whistleblowers” testified before Congress and revealed what we all know now: that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was highly organized, even professional, and that the Administration was aware of that before the sun rose in Washington.
Three bets, all of them lost, along with the lives of four fine Americans. We’ve seen this story played out before, of course, as recently as the start of the Iraq War, when another president gambled on weapons of mass destruction and lost, along with the lives of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why such wagers are undertaken in the name of the American people, especially since it is ordinary Americans like Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, or the thousands lost in Iraq who pay the tab with their own blood.
It would be a stretch to say that Chris Stevens was beloved by the Libyan people; he wasn’t there long enough. But a week following the attack, 30,000 citizens of Benghazi marched in the street to honor him, and to call for an end to the violence that he had worked so hard to quell. We owe it to his memory and the memories of those with whom he died to get to the bottom of the Benghazi affair. And more importantly, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
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