What Went Wrong in Libya
And where do we go from here?


Benghazi has been the loudest specific foreign-policy difference of the campaign, and it keeps getting more serious.

The administration’s line on Benghazi has been plainly false. John McCain has called it worse than Watergate. He is right. Basic executive-branch responsibilities have been neglected. Deaths have resulted.

The information developed last week by Fox News correspondents, indicating repeated refusals of real-time help for our besieged people in Benghazi, adds a new dimension to the issue. Critics now speak of mistakes and mendacities before, during, and after the attack. In this panoramic context, we see a pattern: pre-attack negligence and reticence, in-attack negligence and reticence, post-attack mendacity. And, going further back, we can find pre-intervention reticence as well. And intra-intervention reticence. A continuous syndrome over months and years, one that indicates a continuous motivating cause, not a mistake in the sense of an accident.

And yet, despite the gravity of its mistakes and the depths of the policy problems they indicate, the administration may yet get away with it and muddle through.

The main reason for this paradoxical situation is no doubt the media’s handling of the issue, not inadequacies in the criticism. To be sure, the criticism has had defects, but the argumentation on the Obama side has been even more defective. It is the media that have made the difference, describing the criticism as “simplistic,” “misleading,” “mean-spirited,” and “politically motivated.” When Candy Crowley interposed with an inaccurate “fact check” against Romney on Benghazi, she raised the media’s role to a new level. Her comment shielded the president from truthful correction. It was, arguably, the big lie of the campaign, and became for a moment a scandal of its own – for the media.

Thus far the media have been able to shield themselves and Ms. Crowley, as they have shielded the president. The criticism of Obama has been confined to simplified sound bites. And simplified sound bites can always be easily analyzed away, by those who have the benefit of analyzing at length in the public space, as “simplistic.”

Romney has been basically correct in his criticisms of the administration on Libya, but the problems in the Obama policy are both more thoroughgoing and more subtle than Romney has brought out. They need to be brought out, in order to get the current debate right as to who can be entrusted with the presidency. And in order to get the implications right for future policy. 


The Libyan intervention yielded what is probably the only genuinely friendly country — meaning the government plus the people — that we can find in the Arab world. Yet by now we know that it was significantly bungled. What did we do wrong?

Three things. All three gave the initiative to jihadists and Islamists. And the three have the same common denominator: we did not lead from behind (leading from behind is a skillful diplomatic policy, to the extent it is feasible and is actually done); instead, we confounded our own cause from behind.

1. We delayed the intervention for months, resisting Anglo-French pressures to act, letting militias and jihadists move into the vacuum. This created the very dangers that Secretary Clinton and D.C. think tanks were invoking at the time as reasons for inaction.

It is a mistake we are repeating in Syria.

2. We intervened on a hands-tied basis. France initially acted unilaterally, jumping the gun on the agreed intervention, evading our restrictions. After our role began, we were in some cases slow, begrudging, and incomplete in providing the (quite inexpensive) military support we owed our allies. Instead of seizing the opportunity to consolidate pro-Alliance sentiment, on this remarkable occasion when France and Britain were taking the lead, we undermined the sentiment. Security Council restrictions were also a problem, to be sure; but Britain and France, in the longstanding tradition of great powers, found ways to stretch the resolution and give good explanations for why they had to do this, in the light of the contradictions of the relevant international laws.