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In the aftermath of the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi and three other Americans, the Obama administration did the classic dance of political operatives confronted with an inconvenient truth: deny, deny, deny, and then say, “Oh that doesn’t matter because it was a long time ago.” President Obama has called efforts to get to the bottom of what happened a “sideshow.” But, alas, Benghazi is not a sideshow and it does matter. The administration’s actions in this and other scandals facing the Obama team go to the very foundation of any presidency: can the American people trust their president and his administration?
Thirty years ago, I assumed post as chief of mission in my first ambassadorship. One thing I learned from the able foreign service officers with whom I served was that if there was a legitimate security issue, all I needed to do was send a cable to the State Department’s undersecretary for management and the problem would be addressed promptly, professionally, and effectively. We now know that did not happen in Benghazi. America’s full arsenal of security assets was not deployed to protect Ambassador Stevens. Why not? How has the culture changed where legitimate security requests from a U.S. ambassador go unheeded by the State Department?
I’ve served four secretaries of State in a variety of positions in the State Department and in various ambassadorships. I’ve seen how the building works. Benghazi was not just a mid-level bureaucratic failure. It was a failure of leadership. The secretary of State sets the tone and the bureaucracy responds. If the secretary makes a priority of keeping American diplomats safe and secure, then the bureaucracy responds by doing the same. I know and have worked with Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy; he is an able man. But I also know that if the secretary of State had made security for our diplomats a priority, more would have been done.
Politics is a tough business — a contact sport — and even on national security, the Obama team played politics the Chicago way.
From the moment the Obama administration brought up the video, it was self-evidently a MacGuffin. The ugly video had been out on the Internet for months. Why had this little-seen and little-noted video launched spontaneous demonstrations around and attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the Middle East? Oh yes, it was September 11th! Now, what exactly is the significance of September 11th? And is it remotely credible that spontaneous demonstrators bring along missile launchers? As Albert Camus once wrote, we should set “ideological reflexes aside for a moment and just think.”
Why were the president and his political operatives so anxious to divert the attention of the media and the American people? Just think. It was the final phase of a hard-fought election campaign and these events pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, revealing that a pillar of the president’s reelection campaign was smoke and mirrors.
The Reality of the Record
Generally, in presidential campaigns, Republicans have an advantage on foreign policy and security issues because they are perceived to be stronger on those issues. In 2008, however, the excesses of the Bush administration and public fatigue from the long Afghanistan and Iraq wars made foreign policy a winner for Barack Obama. But let’s look closely at the record. Again, set ideological reflexes aside for a moment and just think.
By 2012, the Obama administration had failed to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, and that country, in which Americans had sacrificed so much blood and treasure, was teetering on the verge of violent chaos. North Korea’s WMD programs had not been curbed. A rising China wasn’t playing fair and was taking away American jobs. Repeated skirmishes in the South China Sea between Chinese vessels and Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats signaled a bolder China unwilling to play by the international rules of the road. The Obama reset policy with Russia had failed as Vladimir Putin assaulted civil society at home and opposed U.S. interests abroad in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere. The Arab Spring had unleashed forces that cast the broader Middle East into turmoil with a rising influence of Islamic fundamentalists. Syria was a conflagration where the government was committing atrocities and killing tens of thousands of its own people. And, perhaps most menacing, the rising Persian Shia in Tehran sought regional hegemony as they continued to relentlessly pursue nuclear breakout. The list goes on. Rather than a shaper of events around the world, America had become an observer. Just because America could not do everything, the Obama administration seemed to believe we need not do anything. Increasingly, the view was of a world in which American interests were threatened or compromised. All in all, for President Obama these events did not provide a great foreign policy and security platform on which to seek reelection.
Just because America could not do everything, the Obama administration seemed to believe we need not do anything.
But the White House and the president’s reelection campaign had a rebuttal. President Obama had killed Osama bin Laden and had decimated al Qaeda through the aggressive use of drones. Obama, they argued, was strong, tough, and effective. He had brought troops home and won the war on terror. It was simple, powerful, and ultimately effective with the media, and eventually with the American people.
Unfortunately, that clean, clear narrative was untrue. The president and his campaign were desperate to keep a lid on Benghazi because it fundamentally challenged their narrative. It simply could not withstand close scrutiny. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And the facts were that Islamic extremists willing to engage in terrorism were on the march across North Africa. Benghazi was but one of the developments that revealed this fact for anyone willing to look. The president’s statements about Benghazi during the foreign policy debate revealed a lawyerly slipperiness and a contortionist’s ability to bend the truth to his immediate political advantage.
There is a significant difference of opinion on how to best prosecute the war on terror. There are good people of experience and sound judgment on both sides of this debate, and it is a debate that must be joined. But it was not a debate the Obama campaign wanted to have during the 2012 presidential campaign. By all indications, it is not a debate the Obama administration ever wants to have.
President Obama believes he can prevail against terrorism on the cheap: light footprint, leading from behind, and killing bad guys with drones. That’s the strategy he has pursued, and he has achieved some success. But dangers continue, the terror threat rises, and so far there is no victory to be claimed. Others believe that dealing with the clear and present danger from Islamic extremists will take a long, ideological struggle. Terrorists have been killing Americans for decades — in Kenya, Tanzania, and on the USS Cole. Unfortunately, it took the horrific events of September 11, 2001, for America to begin to fully appreciate the nature of the extremist threat and to adequately respond. As we confront this existential threat, there are some things we have gotten right and some things we have not.
What Is Required Today
Those who recognize that this will be a long, difficult struggle believe we must speak out clearly and identify the threat for what it is: an illegitimate extremist strain of Islam that wages war against modernity. We must engage in an ideological struggle, just as we once did against the totalitarian extremism of Nazism and Communism. We should not blur the clash or soften the edges. The ideology these extremists embrace is illegitimate. It is evil.
We must confront the immediate threats, whether they are extremists in Yemen or terrorists in Boston. But, more fundamentally, we must join the ideological struggle. We must confront these terrorists, delegitimize them, isolate, marginalize, and eventually crowd them out. It will take time, but our values can and must prevail.
Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire. He was correct, and it shook the foundations of the Kremlin to be so clearly and plainly identified for what they were. Our leaders should not hesitate from similarly stating that the Islamic extremists who hate modernity and who embrace the tactics of terror are also evil. We must engage in battles of might, but the war will be won by our ideas and our ideals.
Those who embrace moral relativism, who are uncomfortable with American power, who put their trust in multilateralism, who have excessive faith in international law, who feel they are too sophisticated and multicultural to recognize American Exceptionalism, and who find it uncomfortable to discuss good and evil, shy away from recognizing the threat we face from Islamic extremism. They seek to marginalize it. They seek quick and easy answers. They too readily claim victory when none has been achieved.
The Obama administration failed to recognize the changed terror threat and pursued a drone campaign as if al Qaeda had remained static.
By 2012, the terrorist threat had metastasized. The al Qaeda that planned the terrible terror of September 11, 2001, was no longer what it had been. Yet the Obama administration failed to recognize the changed terror threat and pursued a drone campaign as if al Qaeda had remained static. By 2012, terror extremists had spread to Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, southern Libya, and Mali. The entire Maghreb had become the new front for Islamic extremists and terror. Those outside the administration who followed this dynamic understood the growing danger and raised their voices. But the president and his operatives either didn’t recognize these self-evident facts or chose consciously not to acknowledge them. After all, if the terror threat had not been decimated but had instead metastasized and was growing stronger, then the Obama narrative of being a tough, effective commander-in-chief would be brought into question. Then the debate on confronting the threat would commence and the Pandora’s box of inconvenient truths on President Obama’s litany of foreign policy and security setbacks would be fair game.
The events in Benghazi showed clearly that the president’s political narrative was not true. Again, set ideological reflexes aside for a moment and just think.
The Obama political spinmeisters inside and outside of government went to work: Deny, divert, and delay the truth. Throw out misleading information and watch the media scramble. Send out the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to spin, spin, and spin some more. Have the president himself give interviews saying we don’t know if what happened was a terrorist attack, even though we did. Almost two weeks later, have the president go to the UN General Assembly and condemn that nasty video. Attack those who raise legitimate questions as politicizing a terrible tragedy, even as the administration through its misdirection, politicization, and outright misstatements was dishonoring the fallen Americans. Politics is a tough business — a contact sport — and even on national security, the Obama team played politics the Chicago way.
Why is this important? It matters because those who fail to learn from the past are likely to repeat the same mistakes. It matters because the families of those Americans killed in Benghazi on September 11th deserve to know the truth. It matters because the terror attack in Algeria, the French military incursion into Mali earlier this year, and recent terrorist plots against U.S. embassies in Tripoli and Sana’a reinforce the message of Benghazi. Killing bad guys with drones has not turned the tide in the war on terror. Al Qaeda has changed and the threat remains a clear and present danger. However well-intended, President Obama’s approach has not succeeded. We need a real, substantive, meaningful debate on how to protect America against the growing threat of Islamic extremists. That’s why Benghazi matters.
And it also matters as one piece in a larger mosaic of concerning events that raise serious and substantial questions about whether or not President Obama’s administration should retain the trust of the American people. Just think.
Whether one labels Benghazi a sideshow or not, it goes to fundamental questions of how to keep America safe and whether or not we can trust the president.
Ambassador Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies, LLP, and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, and as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan.
Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group
The Benghazi attack raises fundamental questions on how to keep America safe and whether to trust the administration. We need a substantive debate on how to protect America against the growing threat of Islamic extremists.
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