We have had ambassadors murdered abroad before, but we have never seen anything quite like the tragic fate of Chris Stevens. Amid all the controversy over Libya, we have lost sight of the human — and often horrific — story of Benghazi: a U.S. ambassador attacked, cut off and killed alone, after being abused by frenzied terrorists, and a second member of the embassy staff murdered, as two American private citizens rushed to the rescue, heroically warding off Islamist hit teams, until they were overwhelmed and also killed.
Seven weeks after the tragedy in Benghazi, new government narratives just keep appearing, as various branches of government point the finger at one another. Now the president insists that “the minute” he “found out what was going on” he gave “very clear directives” to “make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to.” The secretary of defense argues that he knew too little to send in military forces to save the post. Meanwhile, we are hearing from other sources that the beleaguered compound in extremis was denied help on three separate occasions, and there are still more contradictory accounts.
When the government systematically misleads and cannot establish a believable narrative, almost everyone involved is eventually tarred. The final chart of those officials in the Nixon White House who were devoured by Watergate was vast — and so it is becoming with the disaster in Libya. If we have learned anything from Watergate and Iran-Contra, it is that the longer officials deceive and obfuscate, the greater the number of wrecked careers and reputations.
Most likely, the political wing of the White House almost immediately made a decision that the attack on our Benghazi consulate should not endanger the conventional narrative of a successful commander-in-chief — ahead in the polls in part because he had highlighted a supposedly successful foreign policy. Key to that story was the notion that the hit on bin Laden and the drone attacks on other Islamists had rendered al-Qaeda all but impotent. In addition, the administration’s supposed lead-from-behind strategy in Libya had served as a model for energizing a democratic Arab Spring. Commander-in-Chief Obama was intent on reminding the country of his competence and toughness as an international leader, and especially of his wise reluctance to rush into areas of instability.
In such a landscape, Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were brutally murdered. And almost immediately it was clear that the ambassador had earlier warned that Libya was descending into chaos and that Americans were not safe there — only to have his requests for further protection rejected.
During the actual assault on the consulate, a real-time video, streams of e-mail exchanges, and surveys of Islamist websites confirmed that al-Qaedists were carrying out a preplanned assassination — and over the next seven or eight hours it became clear that our staff was in dire need of military assistance that was somehow never sent. Then for nearly two weeks, the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Press Secretary Jay Carney, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice advanced a counter-narrative that simply could not have been true: A spontaneous demonstration over a two-month-old video — just happening to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11 — got out of hand as some disruptive protesters showed up with machines gun, mortars, and RPGs and began killing Americans. Since it was an American religious bigot who had prompted such terrible but “natural” riots with his video that ridiculed and injured Islam, we should apologize for the uncouth among us in the strongest terms.
Obama, Clinton, Clapper, Rice, and Carney strove to outdo each other in damning the obscure video maker — to such an extent that he was summarily arrested on a supposedly outstanding probation charge. The message? Ambassadors die and careful U.S. foreign policy is undermined when right-wing bigots abuse their free-speech rights.
Yet almost all of that story is untrue, and it will come back to haunt all those who either by intent or through ignorance engaged in the cover-up. Review the following spinners.
President Obama still does not grasp the significance of Libya. When he calls the attacks there and in Egypt “bumps in the road” or “not optimal,” and asserts that they will not play much of a role in the final weeks of the campaign, he sounds either callous or naïve or both. Collate the administration’s statements over the two weeks following the attacks, and they simply cannot be true. The months-old video proved just too much of a temptation for the president to resonate the themes of his Cairo speech in damning uncouth Americans for offending Muslims. When the president claims that he ordered everything to be done to save the compound, he must be aware that subordinates who did not in turn give orders that relief be sent will eventually come forward to either affirm or deny his statement. His further problem is that lax security, administration misdirection, and hesitancy to aid the beleaguered all feed into the earlier attitudes framed by “overseas contingency operations,” “man-caused disasters,” “workplace violence,” promises to try KSM in a civilian court, the al-Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, and other efforts to contextualize and airbrush radical Islam’s terrorist assault on the West. In other words, fairly or not, we can discern a logic to why the president would not be candid and accurate about Benghazi.
Secretary Clinton will have to explain why the State Department did not heed requests for greater security, both before and during the attack. And she is beginning to grasp — and so especially is her husband — that the administration is hanging the disaster around her neck. She crudely blamed the attacks on our embassies in the Middle East on the video (with caskets of our dead as backdrop), reminding us that a few months earlier she had crudely giggled about the murder of Qaddafi (“We came, we saw, Qaddafi died”). All in all, her performance during this disaster has been disappointing, and more so with each new disclosure.
Then we come to Ambassador Rice, who apparently was being groomed to succeed Secretary of State Clinton. As part of that trajectory, she was to be point woman for the administration’s spontaneous-mob narrative. That meant that on at least five different occasions Rice hit the Sunday talk shows, apparently to showcase her rhetorical skills, insisting that the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi were ad hoc assaults that had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy, anti-American animosity, or mistakes in American security preparation. Whether through ignorance or by design, Ambassador Rice repeatedly told an untruth, and did so with energy and dogmatic insistence. Her problem, then, is not just that what she insisted was true was clearly not, but also the unambiguous and forceful manner in which she wove her story. That she suddenly appeared from obscurity to play the sophist, and then retreated back into anonymity, suggests that her diplomatic career will be soon coming to an end.
Next is the matter of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. His insistence that a mob had caused the mayhem is one untruth or mischaracterization too many — and a wrong assessment that trumps even his earlier absurdities, such as that the Muslim Brotherhood is largely a secular organization or that Qaddafi would not fall from power. Politicians and bureaucrats err all the time; but when intelligence officers do not appear to have intelligence, then they too usually quietly disappear into comfortable retirement.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey at some point supposedly received information about the attack in real time. Why — given the supposed directive of the president to do “whatever we need to” to save our people — he did not order military assistance will have to be explained. Uncertain conditions will not do, because that is what militaries do: go into uncertain conditions to save lives and defeat the enemy. Armchair tacticians will argue that planes and teams could have been sent and then called off near arrival time if that was what circumstances seemed to warrant; that option would have been wiser than sending no one and thereby ensuring that the compound and annex would be overrun. And because General Dempsey has not been shy in weighing in on matters political by warning retired servicemen not to comment on contemporary politics (General Wesley Clark apparently excepted), and because he has phoned a Florida pastor to tell him to tone down his anti-Islamic rhetoric, the public will all the more expect an explanation. If the chairman can lecture both civilians and retired officers on proper behavior, then he should be able as well to explain why he did not heed the president’s order to do “whatever we need to do.”
CIA Director David Petraeus is now by implication being faulted. A brief communiqué that the CIA did not refuse pleas for assistance was prompted by anonymous administration officials’ allegations that it was our intelligence agencies, not the State Department or White House officials, that prevented assistance to our diplomatic mission. At some point Petraeus will probably have to use all his influence and power to correct the administration’s narrative, which is apparently intended to shift culpability to him and his agency. General Petraeus, by his singular record, probably should have been made either chairman of the Joint Chiefs or NATO supreme commander; he apparently received neither offer. After pulling off the surge in Iraq, he was redeployed into Afghanistan under far different — and more difficult — circumstances that limited his range of options, and he had to give up his nominally superior billet as CENTCOM commander. When he took on the CIA job, he apparently was asked to retire from the military. There is a pattern here: selfless service to the United States, but recently in the context of a politicized administration that has used the enormous prestige of Petraeus in ways that have reduced his influence. Directing responsibility away from the administration to the CIA is more of the same, and it puts a historic figure like Petraeus in an unfair predicament.
Benghazi was a disaster, whose graphic details most Americans do not fully know and, in some sense understandably, do not wish to relive. Still, we await two simple clarifications: an administration timeline of exactly who was notified, in what manner, and when on the night of the attack, and a full release of all information detailing the administration reaction to the murders, from the hours in which the attack occurred to the present day.
Without that honesty, those responsible will only continue to weave their tangled Libyan web.