Events in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on 11 September gave rise to a host of questions which still hang in the air nearly two months later. They are being held in suspension by the processes of the American presidential election. The Obama administration is not talking and the American media, by and large, is not asking (and that is reflected in New Zealand media).
On that day, the American ambassador and three others were killed in a well-organised and well-armed attack by al-Qaeda terrorists. This would not have been a surprise to local staff, or officials in the various diplomatic and security agencies. The consulate building had been attacked in a smaller way on two occasions before and the Ambassador had asked for more protection. The nearby British diplomatic post had also been attacked (Britain subsequently closed it and withdrew its ambassador), as had been the local International Committee of the Red Cross facility. More generally, there was a notable build-up of Islamic activist groups in the region and plenty of unsecured lethal weaponry left over from the Libyan civil war.
So why was the US consulate building in Benghazi left virtually unprotected, why were requests for augmented security (a marine detachment) denied, and who took these decisions and why? What is the connection between this neglect and the protracted campaign of misinformation by the Obama Administration which followed? In this, various members of the Administration vigorously promoted the entirely spurious notion that it was not a terrorist attack at all (despite the use of mortars and other heavy weapons) but just a spontaneous protest about an anti-Muslim video, which got out of hand.
Of course, there are political (as opposed to security) explanations for these things. These have to do with a re-election campaign based in part on the President’s successes in foreign policy, exemplified by his elimination of the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and elsewhere. To beef up the consulate defences in Benghazi and thereby acknowledge that the fundamentalist threat was far from disposed of, would cut across this narrative, as would having to send in the ‘heavy brigade’, after the assault had begun. This is why the Obama administration continued to deny that the attack was anything other than a protest which turned violent.
There is one question about which the reasoning seems a little clearer because an official statement was made (albeit much later). Once the attack had begun why was no help sent? US authorities in Washington and elsewhere (both military and civil) knew what was happening at the consulate building and the annex in real-time (they had a surveillance drone above) and the assault continued for many hours. There were apparently ground attack aircraft available and special forces two hours away in Italy and possibly other assets in Libya that might have been used (indeed, there are reports that the intervention of a small former Navy Seal group was contrary to orders). All this was explained at a recent press conference by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. The problem was uncertainty about the state of affairs on the ground (the ‘fog of war’ and all that). They (he was flanked by senior military officers) did not want to “deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what was going on”. It reminded me of an episode from an earlier time.
In his memoire, Tales from the South Pacific, James Mitchener (then a serving US officer) describes an episode from 1943, in which an American aircraft attacking a Japanese naval base (Munda) on an occupied island in the New Georgian group, is shot down just off-shore. The Japanese defenders send out a boat to capture him. This is attacked and sunk by other attacking aircraft. A succession of Allied aircraft then drops rescue equipment, including a life-raft, whilst keeping up fire on Japanese shore-batteries. The operation is adopted at the highest level (Admiral Kessler, ‘Get that man out of there!’). Eventually a New Zealand seaplane lands to pick him up but, before it can get away, it is disabled. There are now nine persons in the harbour at Munda! A continuing presence of allied aircraft prevents the Japanese from capturing them until two PT boats are diverted from another operation and complete the rescue. A senior US officer comments, ‘We lost a P40 (the fighter) and a PBY (the float plane), as well as obstructing another operation …. it cost $600,000 to save one man’.
There may be questions here about proportion. About whether it was a misuse of military assets and about ‘putting people in harm’s way’, but surely there is no question, from a public servant’s point of view, about what kind of military one would like to serve in (and it is ‘Admiral Kessler’s military’). On the other hand, it might be that Panetta and his bosses were concerned about the possibility of harming innocent civilians and the political ramifications of that. Of course, we don’t know because nobody is answering questions on this. And, of course, if President Obama is re-elected, nobody will. And this applies to a greater or lesser extent to all the other questions I hinted about in the earlier sections. To adapt a slogan from an earlier US presidential election (Clinton, 1992), ‘it’s the politics, stupid!’