By Victor Davis Hanson
Almost everything the administration has alleged about Benghazi has proven false. Yet also, in Machiavellian fashion, the Obama group successfully peddled useful fictions, effectively deluded the country, adroitly ensured President Obama’s reelection, and cast aspersions on those who sought the truth.
In that sense, so far, the lies about Benghazi have won, the truth has failed.
So what really happened?
The Obama administration felt that it was behind the curve concerning the 2011 unrest in Libya. The so-called Arab Spring revolutions had toppled other governments in North Africa, and it seemed that protesters would do the same in Syria and Libya.
Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice did not want to be “on the wrong side of history,” especially given that it looked as if Moammar Qaddafi was likely to fall soon and needed only a little nudge. Given that the British and French were out in front, “lead from behind” seemed a safe, cheap way for the U.S. to intervene and yet not quite intervene — a sort of larger version of a drone strike.
But after Qaddafi’s fall, almost everything that followed proved the U.S. intervention to be a failure. The Americans had ceded leadership to France and Britain and seemed to boast about that fact. They had distorted the U.N. resolutions by going way beyond establishing no-fly zones and sending humanitarian aid. Obama had shown no interest in sending in postbellum peacekeeping troops or in organizing a U.N. force to prevent a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean. The result was a mess for most of 2011–12, as post-Qaddafi Libya settled into something like Somalia or the Sudan.
Al-Qaeda franchises emerged just as the parent organization had been declared to be on the run. Rumors spread that jihadists were arming themselves from the unprotected Qaddafi arsenal in the fashion of an unsettled Iraq around May 2003. Syria’s Assad had no intention of stepping down as ordered by President Obama. And so a full-scale civil war began in Syria, and the Arab Spring descended into tribal violence.
The U.S. decided to round up the most dangerous weapons of Qaddafi’s arsenal and to stealthily monitor the growing though supposedly nonexistent al-Qaeda presence in the detritus of Libya. A large CIA contingent was dispatched to Benghazi; nearby, a “consulate” opened. Ambassador Chris Stevens did his best to coordinate U.S. stealth efforts with what passed for a Libyan government. Rumors, never confirmed, spread that the CIA was shipping some of the Qaddafi arsenal to anti-Assad forces in Syria, hopefully the more secular insurgents. Other talk mentioned al-Qaeda prisoners held for interrogation by the CIA — another no-go topic in the 2012 campaign narrative of a defunct al-Qaeda, a secular Muslim Brotherhood, and an Obama who sees and hears no interrogations.
Stevens and others privately warned that the U.S. presence lacked sufficient security; they feared that the U.S. was doing enough to incite a terrorist response, but not enough to ensure the protection of its own forces if one was launched. But it was a reelection year. A Black Hawk Down firefight might in untimely fashion remind the public of the entire Libyan debacle. Security was not beefed up, and for a time the violence seemed to taper off.
As the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, there were warnings of planned terrorist attacks on overseas U.S. facilities, especially in Libya, perhaps because the CIA presence was large and visible but not invincible. In an era of lead-from-behind diplomacy, terrorists were not convinced of any dangers from another U.S. armed intervention.
Some rumors later floated around that the consulate hit was in response to the drone assassination of Yahya al-Libi, others that it was prompted by stories of CIA arms transfers, yet others that it was linked to efforts to free captured terrorists. Who knows? But few seemed to care. In any case, the State Department had two general goals: to keep Libya from unraveling and to do so without another U.S. intervention. That translated into a de facto refusal to beef up security just two months before the election, and at a time when most other nations with a presence in Libya were packing up and getting out.
When a coordinated jihadist attack did target the consulate and CIA facility in Benghazi, Washington was entirely taken by surprise. It is not clear to what degree military authorities believed that they could have sent military help to those under attack in Benghazi with good chances of success, or whether they wished to do so but were refused permission.
Clearly, the president did not consider the attack on U.S. facilities a developing national turning point on a level with his decision to take out bin Laden. There were to be no photo-ops of the Benghazi situation room.
On the evening of September 11, by the time Obama was apprised of the strike, there was no chance the U.S. was poised to achieve a great victory, as it had in the bin Laden mission. The president had a busy campaign-fundraising schedule the next day, and so he retired early in the expectation that the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could manage the lose/lose crisis.
Disaster followed, as the jihadists overwhelmed meager U.S. security and killed, over a period of several hours, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens; Sean Smith, the U.S. Foreign Service information-management officer; and two CIA contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty. Outrage spread immediately as Americans learned that a U.S. ambassador was easily reached by terrorists and just as easily killed.
There were local claims in various places in the Middle East, many of them dubious, that an obnoxious video by a Coptic Egyptian resident in the U.S. had helped intensify the 9/11-anniversary violence elsewhere. Almost immediately the administration latched onto this narrative and massaged it to meet its own political needs.
That the unexpected and unforeseen disaster was due entirely to a reactionary Coptic, anti-Muslim provocateur, ensconced on U.S. soil, who had sown bigotry and religious hatred in a video released months earlier, proved a T-ball home run for Barack Obama.
Mr. Nakoula was in a sense the perfect fall guy. The video was amateurish, the producer a small-time con artist and cheat. Obama went into action in his accustomed teleprompted cadences, denouncing the forces of intolerance and chest-beating his own anguish at such illiberality on U.S. soil.
More importantly, the video as a casus violentiae was particularly resonant with an administration that had labored to remove the idea of Islamic extremism as a font of terrorism and instead had set up various smokescreens (e.g., jihad as a personal journey, terrorism as workplace violence, the Muslim Brotherhood as largely secular — not to mention overseas contingency operations, man-caused disasters, NASA’s Muslim-outreach mission, etc.). The more Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama hammered the theme of Mr. Nakoula as the guilty party, the more they could showcase their own multicultural bona fides and perhaps thereby explain away the violence (e.g., Obama’s iconic status still resonated in the Middle East; Libya was not a den of jihadists; al-Qaeda was still on the run; extremist right-wing Western provocateurs were still part of the problem).
Someone in the administration quickly discovered that Nakoula had technically violated the terms of his parole, and he was summarily jailed. Nakoula’s incarceration spoke volumes: The Middle East could appreciate that the real culprit was now behind bars. The U.S. had hunted down its own right-wing extremists, and Muslims now had no more reason to explode in spontaneous anger at such bigotry. Finding the real culprits, as the president had once promised, had now been accomplished.
The Nakoula construct, however, posed immediate problems. There were initial intelligence reports (confirmed by the Libyan president himself) that the deaths were caused by al-Qaeda terrorists. There was evidence that U.S. officials had had warnings about the premeditated attacks beforehand but largely discounted them. There was some evidence that the U.S. military might have been able to disrupt the terrorist forces, given that they were not spontaneous crowds who came out of nowhere and could melt away just as easily.
By and large the administration quite brilliantly finessed Benghazi. It turned the tables on the skeptics in the Romney campaign by suggesting that they were using the deaths of brave Americans to score political points. The president and his team cited the fog of war for the initial confusion. They promised in the light of day to go after the perpetrators — a pledge of action that they most surely did not pursue wholeheartedly as the election neared. Western hatred and intolerance, not radical Islam, had caused the deaths, with all the obvious red–blue domestic political implications.
In some senses, the administration photo-ops and spiking the ball on the bin Laden raid (“GM is alive, bin Laden is dead”) paled in comparison with the talking points and party line that immediately created the spontaneous-riot/evil-videomaker theme. Skeptics were deemed to be the politicizers, though the real politicizers were the ones who had distorted the truth.
Finally, time would cure all. The only real worry in the fall of 2012 was reelection. Once Benghazi fizzled in the second debate, with moderator Candy Crowley’s insistence that a presidential reference to generic terror was synonymous with an admission of a deliberate act of political and religious terrorism (as if the road-rage driver who leaves in his wake terror on the highway were a political terrorist), the deaths of Benghazi had entered the black hole of House investigations. The concerned administration officials rightly assumed that, with time, a sort of “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” or “Dude, this was like two years ago” attitude would eventually make Benghazi a sort of bad memory. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and his associates in this regard were largely right, as the media snapped to attention and reduced inquirers to the status of conspiracy theorists.
What then are we left with?
Were there political reasons why requests for additional security were ignored, suggesting that American lives were not as critical as President Obama’s reelection? At what time on the night of the attack did the president go to bed, and who made decisions not to order military assistance? What was the CIA doing in Benghazi, and what effect did its activities have on our security status? Were reports that the hit was retaliation for a U.S. drone attack accurate? What exactly did top-ranking officials of the CIA initially testify about the attacks, and were their original statements contradicted by later assertions? Who in the administration massaged intelligence synopses and sent out memos to head off accusations of failed leadership? Did the administration pressure (as if pressure were needed) media outlets to downplay the story? Why did our U.N. ambassador assert falsehoods, and why was she selected to be such a spokesman? Who ordered Mr. Nakoula jailed and kept him behind bars? Why were the real perpetrators never seriously pursued as promised? Did the personal problems of CIA director David Petraeus, the administration’s initial reaction to them, his various testimonies, and his sudden post-election resignation have any interconnections? Have all those who participated in the defense of the Benghazi facilities been fully heard from? And have those who were in the chain of command responsible for holding back succor on the night of the attack? What information was redacted in documents requested by Congress or under the Freedom of Information Act, and by whom?
Until these questions are answered, we are left with the strong possibility that the lethal attacks might have been deterred with adequate security, or even neutralized in mediis rebus : that high administration officials subsequently and deliberately misled the public, the U.N., our allies, and the relatives of the dead; that the president of the United States did not consider the attacks a crisis, or at least a crisis that could offer political opportunities, and subsequently and knowingly lied about the causes of the attack; that the U.S. government deliberately jailed a U.S. legal resident for reasons other than those alleged; that a U.S. election was influenced by administration deception; that the U.S. government was engaged in covert actions that might have been connected to the violence or were themselves ill conceived; that top intelligence officials did not tell the truth; and that almost immediately top administration handlers chose to construct a fantasy in lieu of reporting the facts about the death of four Americans.
NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.