Deadly Statecraft in Libya

How the U.S. can avoid another Benghazi.

It took nearly four years into the Barack Obama presidency to know what he would do when confronted with an unexpected international crisis demanding immediate action to save American lives.  Americans got their answer when al Qaeda-inspired terrorists overran and torched the U.S. consulate and intelligence annex in Benghazi, Libya killing the U.S. ambassador, a foreign service officer, two former Navy SEALs and breaching a facility housing sensitive U.S. secrets.

Americans under assault in Libya urgently asked their superiors in DC for U.S. military support. Their requests were denied, presumably by President Obama who has the final say in such matters.  It will surely go down as one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history, especially since the most sacred duty of a president is to protect U.S. citizens.

Terrorists armed with AK-47s, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades began the attack about 3:30 PM EST (9:30 PM in Libya) on the 9-11 anniversary as President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Defense Secretary Panetta gathered in the Oval Office for a pre-scheduled meeting.  The attack lasted approximately 7 hours, and was undoubtedly watched in its entirety by top White House, State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agency officials on live video fed by ground-based infrared cameras and imagery from at least one unmanned drone.

The Benghazi attack has many Americans questioning (1) the wisdom of President Obama’s military foray into oil-rich Libya without U.S. congressional approval to topple a tyrant who posed no national security threat to the United States; (2) why the State Department removed a 16-person U.S. Army special forces team from the country and relied on local militias (armed gangs) to provide primary security at U.S. missions in Libya when the murdered U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, had asked for U.S. troops; (3) why the State Department didn’t ramp up security there and elsewhere on the 9/11 anniversary; (4) why U.S. military rapid deployment forces and armed aircraft weren’t sent into Benghazi from regional U.S. bases to rescue Americans; and (5) why a parade of White House and State Department officials and others went before television cameras and in print blaming the attack on a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim movie which spiraled out of control.

The Benghazi attack horrified Obama’s White House and reelection team.  For over a year, they presented the U.N. Security Council-approved, NATO military operation in Libya as a model of international cooperation, freeing Libyans from a tyrant and bringing democracy to the people. To further bolster President Obama’s security credentials, they also claimed al Qaeda was on the verge of defeat after bin Laden’s killing.  In doing so, they forgot history’s hard lesson that seeing things as you wish them to be, rather than how they really are, can be deadly.

After newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens arrived at post in May he reported conditions there as “unpredictable, volatile, and violent.” During the post-Gadhafi period, the U.S. documented over 200 security incidents (gunfights and bombings), including attacks in Benghazi on the British ambassador, the International Red Cross Office, and the U.S. mission.   An August 2012 report, “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” produced by a DoD combating-terror office and published by the Library of Congress, further documented the rising al Qaeda threat.

What are the lessons learned from, and future actions needed in response to, Benghazi?

One, the U.S. should not engage in a military conflict unless U.S. national security is threatened and U.S. Congress approves, which weren’t the case in Obama’s Libyan military intervention.   It’s far better to have duly elected representatives of the American people debating and making war decisions and setting legal war parameters rather than a small group of administration officials and U.N. and NATO member representatives and bureaucrats with varying security interests and agendas.

Two, the U.S. should have military security details, like the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group whose mission is to protect Americans and classified information, assigned to U.S. overseas missions where there is documented evidence of significant danger to American diplomats.  Their sheer presence could deter and/or repel attacks like this one in Benghazi.  There are currently Marine details at 148 State Department outposts, but not Libya.

Three, the U.S. should never hesitate to use U.S. military might to save American lives, even when host governments object.  U.S. military rapid deployment forces and airborne gunships could have arrived in Benghazi from regional U.S. bases in less than two hours.

Four, President Obama should take a tip from Harry “The Buck Stops Here” Truman, and accept responsibility for the Libya debacle.  He also has an obligation to tell the American people whether he or any appointed administration official denied military assistance to those under siege in Benghazi, instead of his current ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ posture.

Five, President Obama should ask his attorney general to appoint an independent investigator to examine all aspects of the Benghazi attack.  The State Department investigation currently underway and touted by the president will not satisfy many Americans because of conflicting interests and statements of Department officials like Secretary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, American Foreign Service Association President Susan Johnson (represents over 31,000 active and retired foreign service officers) and others who publicly perpetrated the administration myth that an obscure anti-Muslim video served as the catalyst for the attack.

Finally, the situation in Benghazi demanded courage, swiftness, decisiveness, and good judgment to save American lives.  Sadly, President Obama didn’t display any of those qualities on that fateful day, his administration choosing instead to turn its back on pleas from under-secured and out-gunned Americans for help.  This is a mistake no future commander-in-chief can repeat.

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