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What did Obama know and when did he know it?

President Barack Obama and General David Petraeus in 2012

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Victor Davis Hanson

Supporters of President Obama have dubbed those who question administration statements about Libya as either partisans or conspiracy theorists, on the premise that the administration had no reason to dissimulate. But in fact, it had plenty of political reasons not to be candid, as the following questions make clear.

Why was the administration hesitant to beef up security at the vulnerable Benghazi consulate ahead of time, or to send in military assistance during the seven-hour attack on the consulate and the CIA annex, or at least to be candid after the attack?

The Obama reelection campaign had established a catchy narrative about foreign policy. “Leading from behind” had rid the world of Qaddafi without the loss of American lives, and had prepped Libya for the arrival of the Arab Spring, which would lead to a postbellum reform government. Barack Obama had killed Osama bin Laden and scattered al-Qaeda, dispelling slurs that he was somehow soft on Islamic terrorism. His reset diplomacy had brought a cool professional approach of quiet competency to foreign policy, consistent with a new lower-profile American posture abroad.

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The idea of a preplanned hit by al-Qaeda affiliates on a vulnerable and unprepared American diplomatic post had the potential to shatter that narrative right before the election. Susan Rice summed up best the administration’s positive take on the supposedly spontaneous riot:

This is a turbulent time. It’s a time of dramatic change. It’s a change that the United States has backed because we understand that when democracy takes root, when human rights and people’s freedom of expression can be manifested, it may lead to turbulence in the short term, but over the long term, that is in the interest of the United States. The mobs we’ve seen on the outside of these embassies are a small minority. They’re the ones who have largely lost in these emerging democratic processes, and just as the people of these countries are not going to allow their lives to be hijacked by a dictator, they’re not going to allow an extremist mob to hijack their future and their freedom. And we’re going to continue to stand with the vast majority of the populations in these countries.

Had we, as our people on the ground had requested, beefed up security at the annex with Marines, attention at some point might have been focused on the chaotic situation in Libya and the vulnerability of the very Americans who supposedly had done so much to free Libyans from Qaddafi. Ambassador Chris Stevens was the sort of new diplomat — low-key, cool, a career professional, fluent in the local language and customs, able to blend in with the locals — that typified the new soft-power approach. He was hardly the sort of ambassador who would need, or want to be associated with, a sandbagged, barbed-wired, Marine-laden traditional compound.

Likewise, sending in air support to the beleaguered defenders — in the manner that Bill Clinton allowed the Blackhawks to strafe whatever was necessary to save a trapped American outpost in Mogadishu — would have reminded Americans that once more we were fighting al-Qaeda or its affiliates — all very much alive after the death of bin Laden. It would also have had the potential to result in a nasty high-profile firefight in a supposedly friendly reforming country on the eve of the U.S. election — a sort of mini-version of Mogadishu or the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon. This was at the very time the president on the campaign trail was telling the country that we were leaving wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not starting one in Libya.

Second, the alternative explanation — blaming a crass right-wing anti-Islamic filmmaker and the notoriously Islamophobic Florida pastor Terry Jones — was just too attractive an antithesis between a few bigoted Neanderthals and the majority of reform-minded liberal Americans. Blasting reckless hate speech, arresting the filmmaker for his insensitivity on the pretext of a minor parole violation, and delivering Cairo-speech-like reassurances about ruffled Muslim feelings would all showcase the president’s natural forte on the global stage: ecumenical reaching out, zero tolerance for bigotry, and singular sensitivity to wounded Muslim feelings.

Obama simply could not resist that, even though on September 12, the day after the attack, he let slip in an interview with 60 Minutes (of which this segment was not aired till weeks later) that he suspected it might have been a preplanned terrorist hit. After all, the notion that on 9/11 hundreds of people would show up at an obscure American consulate in a secondary Libyan city in order to protest a two-month-old video produced by an obscure American, and then suddenly get out of hand and use heavy weaponry such as machine guns and mortars to attack Americans, was as preposterous as it was apparently still preferable to the inconvenient truth.



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