by Barry Rubin
While foreign policy did not figure large in the second presidential debate, the Middle East again emerged as the overwhelming international issue.
In the beginning of the debate, President Barack Obama claimed that he put a high priority on energy independence, an assertion well refuted by Governor Mitt Romney. A president who wants energy independence because of the unreliability of Middle East supplies has many options: he could easily expand oil drilling on federal land, promote the use of new technology to produce oil and gas, approve a major pipeline from Canada, and continue production and use of coal for generating power. To do none of these things and put his effort into restricting traditional energy sources and pushing hard for untested, long-term, and failed “green energy” schemes subverts energy independence.
But the main emphasis in the debate was on the Benghazi assassinations. Obama said:
So as soon as we found out that the Benghazi consulate was being overrun, I was on the phone with my national security team, and I gave them three instructions. Number one, beef up our security and — and — and procedures not just in Libya but every embassy and consulate in the region. Number two, investigate exactly what happened, regardless of where the facts lead us, to make sure that folks are held accountable and it doesn’t happen again. And number three, we are going to find out who did this, and we are going to hunt them down, because one of the things that I’ve said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them.
In other words, Obama said let’s increase security — after the attack was made — and then investigate and find those responsible for the attack. This is all rather obvious and anyone would have done that. But the real questions are different ones: How about investigating why there was such a security breach and the reasons for the attack?
And how about what happened beforehand?
The official story of what led up to the attack is just plain weird. Supposedly, the U.S. ambassador arrived back in the country and immediately ran off to Benghazi virtually by himself allegedly to investigate building a new school and a hospital, but he had no security for himself. His protection was to be provided by relatively untrained Libyans who a few months earlier had been rebels in the civil war.
It is quite true that the State Department and ultimately Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bear responsibility for the ambassador being in Benghazi and for ensuring his protection. The president would not be consulted on such a “minor” event. But the story hinges on why the ambassador was in Benghazi that day.
If he was, as accounts by sources in the U.S. intelligence community suggested, negotiating with a terrorist, anti-American group to obtain the return of U.S. weapons provided during the civil war, that would have been a much higher-priority matter. I have been asked by sources not to reveal the specific weapons system that was Washington’s highest priority to buy back, but the details make sense. The fact that the ambassador was not accompanied by a delegation of foreign aid experts to evaluate these alleged projects shows that the reason for the ambassador’s presence in Benghazi is being covered up. This situation transcends State Department jurisdiction and brings in the CIA and higher-level national security officials. The plan would have been in the presidential briefing and it is quite conceivable he would have been called on to approve of it.
Obama and his administration immediately lied to the American people about the cause of the attack, what happened, and who appeared to have done it.
– They said the attack was due to the video rather than a revolutionary Islamist attempt to hit at the United States and subvert the regime in Libya.
– They said the attack was a spontaneous act in the context of a peaceful demonstration when it was a planned assault.
– They said that there was no idea who was responsible when it was almost certainly al-Qaeda.
In the debate, Obama charged:
While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release trying to make political points. And that’s not how a commander in chief operates. You don’t turn national security into a political issue, certainly not right when it’s happening.
Yet all three of the above lies were precisely a matter of turning “national security into a political issue,” and that is what Obama has done throughout his term.
To acknowledge the cause of the attack would have been to acknowledge the real threat in the Middle East and the embarrassing fact that American weapons had been given to terrorist, anti-American groups. Incidentally, far from learning anything in Libya, Obama is now doing precisely the same thing in Syria.
To acknowledge the nature of the attack would be to show the depth of the security failure — on September 11 of all days — in not recognizing the danger in Benghazi. This includes the fact that the guards were untrained; that they had — according to one of them — been aware of the danger and not told any Americans; that they had fled; that Libyan regime sources had apparently tipped off the attackers as to where Americans were hiding; and that there had been no U.S.-provided security. Was that last shortcoming due to an attempt not to “offend” the Libyans by showing they weren’t trusted? If so, that arises directly from the themes Obama has set in his foreign policy.
In addition, blaming the event to a video produced in the United States — a clear and obvious lie — put a large part of the blame on America itself. No, huge forces aren’t seeking to create radical Islamist regimes in every country in the Middle East; there are just folks offended by a slur on their religion.
To admit that al-Qaeda is still very much in business would show that Obama’s claim the group had been defeated was false and demonstrate the limited value of killing Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is, of course, still strong in Yemen and Somalia as well as having active groups in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Syria, and other places.
Obama continues in the debate:
But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. I said I’d end the war in Libya — in Iraq, and I did. I said that we’d go after al-Qaida and bin Laden. We have. I said we’d transition out of Afghanistan and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security. That’s what I’m doing.
What Obama should have said is that he would end U.S. combat presence in these countries. Yet the wars continue. The assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya was an event in that war.
And contrary to Clinton’s statement, Obama affirmed: “…I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place [in Libya]….”
But what is taking place? The debate ultimately focused on the rather narrow question of whether Obama had or had not immediately called the assassination a “terrorist attack.” This is a red herring. Inasmuch as Americans were murdered for non-criminal reasons, the attack was by definition terrorist. Yet if this was a spontaneous deed in the midst of a peaceful demonstration of people upset because their religion had been slandered, then it was not so much a “terrorist attack” — first-degree murder — but rather some combination of self-defense and passions bubbling over in a spontaneous way.
The real questions, however, were raised by Romney in his response:
There were other issues associated with this —with this tragedy. There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack, and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people. Whether there was some misleading or instead whether we just didn’t know what happened, I think you have to ask yourself why didn’t we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations [Susan Rice, acting of course on administration directives] went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could of we not known?
In other words, the Obama administration deliberately lied to the American people.
But I find more troubling than this that on…day following the assassination of the United States ambassador — the first time that’s happened since 1979 — when we have four Americans killed there, when apparently we didn’t know what happened, that the president the day after that happened flies to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser, then the next day to Colorado for another event, another political event.
In this regard, Obama didn’t so much “make political points” or “turn national security into a political issue.” He simply put his own political benefit ahead of national security. Since, according to his own claim, Obama didn’t know what happened and there was a wave of other attacks developing, he should have put the priority on dealing with a crisis.
And as for the way Obama behaved, to quote his own words, “that’s not how a commander in chief operates.” That is why this specific issue is so emblematic of Obama’s foreign policy performance.
This calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East. Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel, where the president said that…he was going to put daylight between us and Israel. We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb. Syria — Syria’s not just the tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a… strategically significant player for America. The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.
Quite true. The assassinations in Libya and how Obama handled them are one more example of that pattern. A region involving hundreds of millions of people and the main international source for American energy is going down the drain and Obama is, figuratively, heading off for Las Vegas.
Update: It has now come out that the State Department hired a small, relatively unknown British firm (how’s that for outsourcing jobs?) which in turn hired 20 untrained, unarmed Libyans who were told to sound the alarm and run away if there was an attack.