Benghazi and President Obama’s Foreign Policy – Proactive or Reactive?

October 20th, 2012

By Dan Miller

President Obama’s foreign policy has provided many examples of leading from behind.

consulate_benghaziThe expression “leading from behind,” as used in this article, means:

1. Waiting while allies decide what to do and then following along. Doing that assumes substantial congruity of interest with our allies. To the extent that such congruity may exist at all, it is neither uniform nor perpetual nor consistent.

2. “Leading from behind” also, and of more significance here, means reactive leadership — waiting for a bad and perhaps irreversible situation to develop and then scrambling to find politically convenient explanations to offer and actions to take in response. However, failure to take effective measures proactively means that after a serious problem does arise it can be too late to do much beyond trying to cover for prior ineptitude. When driving an automobile with seriously defective and worsening brakes, the reactive steps that one can take to avoid a collision after the brakes have failed are often more limited, less effective and probably more dangerous than those that could have been taken before they had failed. Such excuses as “But, there wasn’t much I could have done after the brakes had failed” are infrequently accepted. Neither are such excuses as “I had more important stuff to do than get the brakes fixes.”

If, as the Obama Administration now seems to claim, President Obama did not learn of the circumstances in Libya that eventually led up to the September 11th attack until well after the attack had occurred, the most likely reason is that he did not want to learn until the situation had got out of control and had become politically damaging to his prospects for reelection. Did fundraising and campaigning take precedence over attending, and asking questions at, security briefings? That may be partially answered by this article written by former Obama administration Defense undersecretary and State Department adviser Rosa Brooks,

President Obama promised to ensure transparency and competence in government, but too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios (I could name names, but will charitably refrain, unless you buy me a drink), while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined.

Cronyism also reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings: increasingly, insiders say, meetings called by top NSS officials involve by-name requests for attendance, with no substitutions or “plus ones” permitted. As a result, dissenting voices are shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights. The result? Shallow discussions and poor decisions.

How much important information was not brought to President Obama’s attention? Why?

Last June,

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, in a diplomatic cable from Libya … cited the apparent rise of “Islamic extremism” and the spotting of “the Al Qaeda flag” over buildings outside the city of Benghazi, where he and three other Americans were ultimately killed in an attack on Sept. 11.

Mr. Stevens, President Obama’s Ambassador to (and hence his personal representative in) Libya, is of course now no less dead than Osama bin-Laden.

There was also

a June 25 cable in which Mr. Stevens cited an uptick in attacks occurring in Libya “targeting international organizations and foreign interests.” He went on to point out a June attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which involved the explosion of an improvised bomb.

Little has previously been reported about the incident, which occurred just three months before the attack that ultimately lead to Mr. Stevens’ death. In the cable, he said responsibility for June’s attack had been claimed by “an Islamic extremist group, ‘the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman Brigade.'”

The infamous “Blind Sheikh,” Abdel-Rahman is presently serving a life sentence in the United States, convicted of plots to blow up the United Nations headquarters along with major bridges and tunnels in New York. …

Other cables cite ongoing concerns about security. In one on Aug. 8, under the title “The Guns of August: Security in eastern Libya,” Mr. Stevens asserted that the “absence of significant deterrence” had “contributed to a security vacuum.” (Emphasis added.)

To even a beginning student of rudimentary Anglo-American history, “The Guns of August” refers to Barbara Tuchman’s well known book of that title, the first chapters of which describe the events leading up to the beginnings of World War One. Ambassador Stevens’ less than cryptic warning of events to come probably escaped the notice of whichever of President Obama’s minions failed to pass it along to him.

In another, on Sept. 11, just hours before he was killed, Mr. Stevens noted a local Libyan commander in Benghazi had “expressed growing frustration with police and security forces (who were too weak to keep the country secure) …”

obama_muslim_brotherhoodWhy would anyone hoping to retain his Administration position pester President Obama with such information, probably inconsistent with his world view, that he does not want? He’s too busy and, as the smartest person in the room, must already know everything he needs wants to know. Perhaps he believes that there is little need for him to waste his precious time learning the minimal realities of foreign events; there are more important things for him to do and if a big problem arises he will obviously know intuitively how deal with it.

Here is a good article entitled Benghazi: who knew what, and when? Only when it became impossible, with a straight face, to continue to claim that the Benghazi attack had been caused by a little viewed and poorly made YouTube video was it acknowledged that maybe al Qaeda and/or related Islamist forces had organized the attack in celebration of September 11, 2001 instead. At most, the video can be analogized to a pre-game performance by cheerleaders at a football match. It may enliven drowsy attendees but has no significant effect on which team is the better prepared or which will win the game.

Here are three time-lines from that article:

[I]t is crucially important to define the timeline of the unfolding tragedy. James Rosen (The Wall Street Journal,October 20, 2012) distinguishes three relevant time-lines.

The first time-line encompasses the pre-period before the attack, when lax security procedures for the consulate and its annexes opened up an avenue for terrorists to exploit. Who knew what and when about this prior situation. Did the C.I.A. fail to retrieve evidence of the plot?  Or did the C.I.A. warn the Department of State, only to be rebuffed in its request for increased security. Why was the evidence not gathered, not reported upon and/or not acted on? How much did Obama know? This is the really important issue. Four Americans died because of this intelligence failure.

The Middle East had become increasingly explosive during the months preceding September 11, 2012 and the overall conduct of our foreign policy is a principal duty of the President. Surely, he must have been at least vaguely aware of the increasingly explosive Middle East situation well before the Benghazi attack; if not, what is he doing in the chair of the President – Commander in Chief? If so, why did the circumstances not persuade him to become more than just vaguely aware? Why did he not direct his subordinates to beef up security and take other measures? While the day-to-day details of security at such outposts as the compound in Benghazi are properly State Department functions, unless the President takes a lively interest in the situation, in the likely targets and generally about the security situations affecting them, he can not do his job effectively. No President lacking such interest and information could; nor can that be an excuse for such lack of interest and information on the part of any President.

The first timeline should begin with the dates on which President Obama first became seriously interested in and aware of the overall Benghazi security situation. It’s part of “situational awareness.” Attacks can come without warning, but the more proactive the commander the more likely they are to be anticipated and prepared for. There appears to have been no preparation at all for the Benghazi attack and indeed Ambassador Stevens’ wires and various requests by others for additional security were denied. Why? By whom?

It is essential to learn when President Obama became situationally aware. Did that happen in advance of the Benghazi attack? If so, how much in advance? Why didn’t that dog bark? If after the attack, when? Has it happened yet?

The second time-line encompasses the five or six hours on the evening of September 11, when the attacks transpired. What really happened to Ambassador Stevens that night and how vulnerable were the U.S. diplomatic corps bravely serving at 275 installations across the world on the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001?  Why was the rescue effort so lame and so ineffectual. Why were Black Hawks not moved instantaneously to the scene to mow the invaders down and to remove the terror at its source? Who made that fateful decision? And who knew that the decision had been made? And why did they not speak out immediately to the American people? (Emphasis added.)

This harks back the first timeline, as I would augment it, because the rescue effort could not have been other than lame and ineffective without following the rule of the seven P’s: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

The third Benghazi timeline – the one that has fostered charges of a cover-up – stretches across those eight days from 3.40 pm on September 11, 2012. If indeed it turns out that the White House engaged in an eight day cover-up over Benghazigate the ostensible motivation bears a striking similarity to that of all the president’s men in Watergate, except in this case two women are involved.

And, obviously, no one was killed during the Watergate incident.

The third timeline has principally to do with casting blame on, or deflecting blame from, the President – Commander in Chief. That’s an entirely valid and necessary political exercise but fails as a learning point for future presidents.

This article at The Daily Beast notes that President Obama’s initial remarks to the nation on the Benghazi attack

gave him deniability in two directions: He protected himself against Republican charges just like the charge Romney leveled at him, while simultaneously refraining from any definitive characterization of the attack as terrorism.

The language was ambiguous — and intentionally ambiguous. (A statement like this would have been reviewed by at least a dozen senior White House staff, including both political and counter-terrorism advisers, and then circulated to relevant officials at State, CIA, Defense and maybe the Department of Justice, too.

Still, Romney led with his chin, and the president walloped him. By delivering the wallop, Obama also prevented the follow-on challenge before it could even be framed, and that challenge was this:

Why was the administration so eager to represent the Benghazi attack as a response to a YouTube video? Pulitzer-worthy reporting by my Daily Beast colleague Eli Lake has established that U.S. intelligence quickly ascertained that the Benghazi attack had been planned in advance; that it was organized by an al-Qaeda affiliate group operating inside Libya; that the attackers had surveilled the targeted consulate before the assault; that they maintained communications security in a way consistent with a trained force; and that they directed their firepower skillfully not only against the consulate, but also against a nearby CIA annex.

Yet despite this knowledge, and with very rare exceptions, the administration for almost two weeks mischaracterized the incident.

Placing the Benghazi focus on what President Obama said immediately after the attack avoids issues of substantive importance and generates little more than political talking points. The Administration’s positions in the days and weeks after the attack, when President Obama principally cited the video during an address to the United Nations as the cause and his Ambassador to the United Nations often repeated the same nonsense, are more important.

The same Daily Beast article tries to explain why the Obama Administration took its initial position and stuck with it as long as possible.

Here’s why. Libya was fully Obama’s war. He made the decision to intervene to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and he decided on the nature of the intervention. Afterward, he took credit for the result: a dictator deposed, elections organized, without any long-term American presence in the country. Compared to Afghanistan or Iraq, Libya looked at first like a cheap and easy success.

But events have shaken the Obama narrative about Libya. Despite the elections, there is no effective government in Libya. The eastern half of the country is controlled by armed militia groups imbued with al-Qaeda ideology — to the point where (The New York Times reported Friday) the presumed ringleader of the attack on the Benghazi consulate could hold a press conference on an open-air patio without fear of apprehension or retaliation.

Suddenly, Libya does not look like such a big success. Gaddafi was nasty, but he had long ago ceased to be a nuisance for the United States. If overthrowing him created an al-Qaeda romper room a short boat ride from NATO ally Italy — that would be a very bad and embarrassing result.


Again, President Obama’s initial statements following the Benghazi attack are much less important than the positions he and his administration took during the following weeks; both together are less important than why and how President Obama failed during the weeks and months preceding the Benghazi attack. He can try to place the blame on others, but cannot be permitted to do so. Those failures are “not optimal” for him politically and should be unerasable black marks on his presidency. Far worse, however, four American “bumps in the road” are now dead because of his incompetence and/or inattention; no conceivable “not optimal” consequences for President Obama’s reelection or legacy can rise to that level of importance, except perhaps to him.

President Obama failed to become — and remain — situationally aware of the explosive nature of the Middle East in general and Libya in particular. In consequence, his Administration failed to “harden” the Benghazi outpost. The problems go far beyond that, however. His failure (or inability) aggressively to assert the interests of the United States, his continued reluctance to take effective steps to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, his — at best — wishy-washy approach to the survival of our only free and democratic ally in the region, Israel, his evident preference for the perks of his office rather than for the hard work it entails and his incessant fund raising and campaigning for reelection all demonstrate that President Obama is unfit to be the President of the United States.


(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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