Almost everything the administration has alleged about Benghazi has proven false. Yet also, in Machiavellian fashion, the Obama group successfully peddled useful fictions, effectively deluded the country, adroitly ensured President Obama’s reelection, and cast aspersions on those who sought the truth.
In that sense, so far, the lies about Benghazi have won, the truth has failed.
So what really happened?
The Obama administration felt that it was behind the curve concerning the 2011 unrest in Libya. The so-called Arab Spring revolutions had toppled other governments in North Africa, and it seemed that protesters would do the same in Syria and Libya.
Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice did not want to be “on the wrong side of history,” especially given that it looked as if Moammar Qaddafi was likely to fall soon and needed only a little nudge. Given that the British and French were out in front, “lead from behind” seemed a safe, cheap way for the U.S. to intervene and yet not quite intervene — a sort of larger version of a drone strike.
But after Qaddafi’s fall, almost everything that followed proved the U.S. intervention to be a failure. The Americans had ceded leadership to France and Britain and seemed to boast about that fact. They had distorted the U.N. resolutions by going way beyond establishing no-fly zones and sending humanitarian aid. Obama had shown no interest in sending in postbellum peacekeeping troops or in organizing a U.N. force to prevent a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean. The result was a mess for most of 2011–12, as post-Qaddafi Libya settled into something like Somalia or the Sudan.
Al-Qaeda franchises emerged just as the parent organization had been declared to be on the run. Rumors spread that jihadists were arming themselves from the unprotected Qaddafi arsenal in the fashion of an unsettled Iraq around May 2003. Syria’s Assad had no intention of stepping down as ordered by President Obama. And so a full-scale civil war began in Syria, and the Arab Spring descended into tribal violence.
The U.S. decided to round up the most dangerous weapons of Qaddafi’s arsenal and to stealthily monitor the growing though supposedly nonexistent al-Qaeda presence in the detritus of Libya. A large CIA contingent was dispatched to Benghazi; nearby, a “consulate” opened. Ambassador Chris Stevens did his best to coordinate U.S. stealth efforts with what passed for a Libyan government. Rumors, never confirmed, spread that the CIA was shipping some of the Qaddafi arsenal to anti-Assad forces in Syria, hopefully the more secular insurgents. Other talk mentioned al-Qaeda prisoners held for interrogation by the CIA — another no-go topic in the 2012 campaign narrative of a defunct al-Qaeda, a secular Muslim Brotherhood, and an Obama who sees and hears no interrogations.
Stevens and others privately warned that the U.S. presence lacked sufficient security; they feared that the U.S. was doing enough to incite a terrorist response, but not enough to ensure the protection of its own forces if one was launched. But it was a reelection year. A Black Hawk Down firefight might in untimely fashion remind the public of the entire Libyan debacle. Security was not beefed up, and for a time the violence seemed to taper off.
As the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, there were warnings of planned terrorist attacks on overseas U.S. facilities, especially in Libya, perhaps because the CIA presence was large and visible but not invincible. In an era of lead-from-behind diplomacy, terrorists were not convinced of any dangers from another U.S. armed intervention.
Some rumors later floated around that the consulate hit was in response to the drone assassination of Yahya al-Libi, others that it was prompted by stories of CIA arms transfers, yet others that it was linked to efforts to free captured terrorists. Who knows? But few seemed to care. In any case, the State Department had two general goals: to keep Libya from unraveling and to do so without another U.S. intervention. That translated into a de facto refusal to beef up security just two months before the election, and at a time when most other nations with a presence in Libya were packing up and getting out.
When a coordinated jihadist attack did target the consulate and CIA facility in Benghazi, Washington was entirely taken by surprise. It is not clear to what degree military authorities believed that they could have sent military help to those under attack in Benghazi with good chances of success, or whether they wished to do so but were refused permission.
Clearly, the president did not consider the attack on U.S. facilities a developing national turning point on a level with his decision to take out bin Laden. There were to be no photo-ops of the Benghazi situation room.
On the evening of September 11, by the time Obama was apprised of the strike, there was no chance the U.S. was poised to achieve a great victory, as it had in the bin Laden mission. The president had a busy campaign-fundraising schedule the next day, and so he retired early in the expectation that the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could manage the lose/lose crisis.
Disaster followed, as the jihadists overwhelmed meager U.S. security and killed, over a period of several hours, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens; Sean Smith, the U.S. Foreign Service information-management officer; and two CIA contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty. Outrage spread immediately as Americans learned that a U.S. ambassador was easily reached by terrorists and just as easily killed.