The Benghazi Verdict
Now that the facts are tumbling out about what really happened in Benghazi and the White House last September 11, the verdict is in. National security took a backseat to the demands of the presidential campaign.
Everyone knows the facts. The Benghazi consulate came under a ferocious paramilitary attack that lasted about seven hours and took the lives of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya. It was a planned assault. The White House and the Pentagon were caught flat-footed and failed to respond.
It took months to verify the basic facts about Benghazi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided few details in contentious House and Senate testimony marked by constant evasion and an outburst of temper. Nevertheless, we do know that the late ambassador Chris Stevens warned the State Department of Benghazi’s vulnerability and the inability to defend the consulate.
Then came the blockbuster testimony of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. They admitted that they conferred with the president on the afternoon of September 11 for no more than thirty minutes. He told them to do what they thought was necessary and then retired for the evening. Neither Panetta nor Dempsey had any follow-up conversations with the president that night. They failed to confer with Clinton. The president made no inquiries of his own.
The events of September 11 and the president’s clear choice to place politics over security must be seen in the context of the presidential campaign. The terrorist attack occurred only days after the Democrats concluded their nominating convention. The mantra of the convention was “GM is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.” Speaker after speaker repeated the line to thunderous applause.
The message was clear. President Obama had saved the economy from the ravages of the Bush administration. Al Qaeda had been crushed. Terrorists around the world were on the run. America and its forces around the world were safer than ever.
The week after the Democrats left their convention in Charlotte, reality reared its ugly head. A mob attacked the US Embassy in Cairo. Within hours, the assault in Benghazi was underway, with deadly consequences and the alarming truth that terrorists were alive and well and ready to strike.
This is when the president made his decision. He could dispatch military forces to combat the terrorists and defend Americans on the ground, or he could let the battle play out and rationalize his inaction later. Politics prevailed. He chose the latter course and launched a defense of the Benghazi tragedy that lacked credibility and defied the facts.
The morning after the attack, the president began using an anti-Muslim video to condemn the Benghazi attack when he rejected “all efforts to denigrate” the religious beliefs of others. He made only a passing reference to terrorism. The reference would appear prominently in the second presidential debate and immediately became the subject of widespread controversy that lasted until election day.
Within days of September 11, the administration’s spin degenerated into a cover-up. In five Sunday television appearances, UN Ambassador Susan Rice said Benghazi was the result of a popular protest in response to the controversial video rather than a preplanned terrorist attack. Rice paid dearly for her statements; it eventually ended her quest to succeed Clinton. Nevertheless, it was Clinton and the president himself who perpetuated the video excuse long after Rice made her remarks on September 16.
In appearance after appearance, Obama fell back on the video and pointed to an investigation and his pledge to capture and punish those responsible for the attack. To this day, the only person held responsible is the man who made the video. He was hauled off to jail in the middle of the night and remains incarcerated.
The extensive and lengthy investigation of Benghazi produced an outline of events and recommendations for improvements to protect American diplomats abroad. The results of the investigation did not emerge until well after the election. In the meantime, the president maintained his defiant stance, even using the occasion of his annual address to the UN General Assembly to perpetuate the myth that a blasphemous video had sparked the Benghazi attack.
We now know that the president was only minimally involved in the events of September 11. He failed to follow up that night with Panetta and Dempsey. What we don’t know is whom he did talk to that evening. It is impossible to believe that he retired to the White House family quarters for a quiet evening with his family. Benghazi was a crisis.
Although the president ignored his national security team, it would be revealing to know how many conversations he held with top political advisers such as David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. How many times did he confer with his campaign staff in Chicago? How did he weigh the political consequences of military action against doing nothing at all? We will never know.
Clearly, the president was reluctant to take military action for two reasons. First, he had to fear the reaction of his political base that rejects military intervention at almost any cost. Second, he had to know the dangers of sending aircraft or special forces to Benghazi that could prolong the conflict and incur American casualties. So he punted.
The ghost of Jimmy Carter was lurking in the White House on September 11. In 1980, Carter lost all hope for reelection when an attempt to extract the hostages in Tehran crashed and burned in the desert. Only weeks before the first of three presidential debates and less than two months before election day, Obama played it safe to protect his reelection. We know the rest of the story.