The AWOL Commander-in-Chief

by Andrew C. McCarthy
What was Obama doing while terrorists attacked Americans in Benghazi?

You couldn’t help but feel for Robert Lovell. The retired brigadier general is haunted by the failure of AFRICOM, the U.S. military’s Africa Command, to respond when Americans were under siege in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. His congressional testimony this week was somber — no faux “What difference, at this point, does it make?” indignation, no “Dude, this was two years ago” juvenilia for him.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the State Department’s Sean Smith were killed in the early stage of the jihadist attack. By then, the actions that would surely have saved their lives — e.g., an adult recognition that Benghazi was no place for an American diplomatic facility, or at least the responsible provision of adequate security — had already been callously forsaken. It seems unlikely AFRICOM could have gotten there in time for them on that fateful night, though that does not come close to excusing the failure to try.

Former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty are a different story. They fought valiantly for many hours after our military learned, very early on, that the battle was raging. Unlike AFRICOM, the SEALs did not stand pat. They ran to the sound of the guns. After saving over 30 of their countrymen, they paid with their lives. The armed forces, General Lovell recalled, knew that terrorists were attacking them. Yet no one came to their aid.

Lovell bears the burden of their abandonment with a heavy heart. His moving testimony made that clear. Still, his version of events is deeply unsatisfying. Why did AFRICOM fail to respond? “Basically,” he stammered, “there was a lot of looking to the State Department.” Unfortunately, we’re told Secretary Hillary Clinton and her minions were unclear “in terms of what they would like to have.” Come again? “They didn’t come forward with stronger requests for action.”

This Foggy Bottom focus had me groping for my pocket Constitution. Sure enough, Article II was as I remembered it. Much as Hillary Clinton may desire to be the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, that job does not belong to the secretary of state.

It was the solemn duty of the president to come forward with not requests but commands for action. Why was AFRICOM hanging on the State Department’s preferences? Why were our troops hamstrung by what Lovell described as “deference to the Libyan people?” On the night of September 11, 2012, AFRICOM was not beholden to Mrs. Clinton or Tripoli. They answered to Barack Obama.

Of course, no one can answer to a commander-in-chief who abdicates his command, a commander-in-chief who is AWOL.

A commander-in-chief does not get to vote “present.” Over 19 months have elapsed since terrorists savagely attacked the United States in Benghazi. Yet we are still waiting, ever waiting, for an account of where the president was, what he was doing, and what if any directives he gave during the hours and hours during which Americans were being tormented and killed.

If the president’s name were Bush or Reagan, we would long ago have had a minute-by-minute accounting of his every move. And if the incident involved some faraway American warrior’s slaying of a jihadist emir, we would long ago have had a Situation Room photo depicting Obama as maestro . . . with an accompanying soundtrack of classified leaks portraying his courage while others were under fire.

Benghazi, however, is a catastrophe wrought by Obama’s pro-Islamist policies, one that puts the lie to his oft-repeated claim to have “decimated” al-Qaeda. So with Benghazi we get the stonewall, a barricade his praetorian media have been only too happy to fortify.

We know that less than a day after Ty Woods and Glen Doherty were martyred protecting Americans out of a sense of duty, the commander-in-chief in whom that duty is actually reposed was at a Las Vegas fundraiser, insouciantly repeating his campaign line: “A day after 9/11, we are reminded that a new tower rises above the New York skyline, but al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat and bin Laden is dead.”

Only hours before in Cairo, al-Qaeda operatives empowered by the president’s pro-Islamist policies had rioted outside our embassy, replacing the Stars and Stripes with their jihadist black flag and chanting, “Obama, Obama, there are still a million Osamas!” Even fewer hours before, in Benghazi, the United States was dealt a humiliating defeat by the very jihadists Obama was still risibly claiming to have quelled. Yet for those hours, we to this day have no accounting of Barack Obama’s whereabouts and activities.

Well, next to no accounting. We do know that the president was informed about the Benghazi siege only minutes after it began — because military officials, who have felt obliged to account for their actions, have reported telling him about it. We know, as The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol notes, that “while Americans were under assault in Benghazi, the president found time for a non-urgent, politically useful, hour-long call to [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu” — a call made because Obama was wooing Jewish voters unsettled by his notorious disdain for Netanyahu, and thus a call it was in his interest to publicize. We have been told, moreover, that about five hours after learning that Americans were under attack, Obama had a phone call with Secretary Clinton — immediately after which, even as Woods and Doherty were still fighting for their lives, Clinton put out a statement spinning the Benghazi violence as the product of an obscure anti-Muslim Internet video . . . the same fraudulent claim Clinton subordinates had already made about the earlier Cairo violence.

Interestingly, the White House had initially — and apparently falsely — insisted that the president had not spoken on the phone with Secretary Clinton or other senior cabinet and military officials. Obama’s sparse version of events changed only after Clinton felt obliged to account for her activities in congressional testimony. Obviously, the president of the United States perceives no similar obligation.

I’ve written a book about presidential lawlessness and dereliction of duty, called Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, which will be released in a few weeks. It is not a call for the president’s impeachment. It is an acknowledgment that impeachment is a political remedy, not a legal one; thus the executive’s provable commission of serial impeachable offenses counts for little unless and until there is broad public consensus that a president should be removed from power. Impeachment is a political case that must be carefully built; partisan hackery is no substitute.

The foundation of any such political case is simply this: The executive branch is designed to make the president singularly accountable. That is why he is the sole official in whom the Constitution vests all executive power — AFRICOM moves, or doesn’t move, based on his orders because it is his authority that the armed forces exercise. The chief executive, James Madison asserted, would be wholly “responsible for [the] conduct” of his subordinate officials. Therefore, it would “subject [the president] to impeachment himself, if he suffers them to perpetrate with impunity high crimes or misdemeanors against the United States, or neglects to superintend their conduct, so as to check their excesses.” When AFRICOM abstains from battle, or Lois Lerner obstructs an investigation, or Eric Holder misleads Congress, or Michael Morell doctors talking points, or Susan Rice serially lies on national television, Barack Obama is responsible. It is his bidding that they do, and by failing to fire or discipline them he implicitly endorses their malfeasance.

Outnumbered and fighting off wave after jihadist wave, Americans were left to die in Benghazi while administration officials huddled, not to devise a rescue strategy, but to spin the election-year politics. The most powerful and capable armed forces in the history of the world idled, looking not to their commander-in-chief but to a State Department that busied itself writing press releases about phantom Islamophobia. The president of the United States, the only constitutional official responsible for responding, was nowhere to be found.

We are left with four dead Americans and an emerging paper trail of dereliction stretching from Benghazi to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Benghazi is not about what Hillary Clinton or Leon Panetta or Susan Rice or Ben Rhodes or Jay Carney or Robert Lovell did or didn’t do. The only question is: What was President Barack Obama doing, and not doing, during the critical hours when his sworn duty required decisive action? Mr. Obama owes Americans a detailed answer. Now.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His next book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, will be released by Encounter Books on June 3.