When Osama bin Laden was killed, President Obama and his top officials huddled before a video screen in the White House, releasing a photo depicting how deeply involved the commander-in-chief was. When video from a drone showed terrorists attacking the American legation in Bengahzi, Mr. Obama discussed the matter in the Oval Office with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for 20 minutes. They then returned to the Pentagon. Mr. Obama never talked to them again, not while Ambassador Stevens was missing, not when his body was brought to a Libyan hospital amidst concern that it was a terrorist trap, and not when a second attack killed two Americans at the CIA annex near the legation. Nor did Secretary of State Clinton ever call Mr. Panetta or General Dempsey.
When the senators questioned Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey today, both firmly testified that that was the unfortunate fact. As a Marine, I find that lack of concern — that un-involvement — hard to grasp and impossible to justify. If a PFC is missing in battle, the entire chain of command focuses its attention and resources like a laser upon his recovery. The commanding general doesn’t talk to his aides for 20 minutes and go to bed.
Our ambassador holds a rank equivalent to a four-star general. More important, he represents our country. He isn’t a symbol of America; he is America. No wonder the White House has maintained a wall of silence about Benghazi.
That lack of concern is depressing and is the major lesson to take away from Benghazi.
Separate but related, there is a disturbing military lesson: The Senate hearing revealed two reasons why the U.S. military failed to respond effectively.
First, Mr. Panetta said, “Within an hour, the first attack ended and we thought that was the end of it.” So “group think” prevailed within the Pentagon command cells. The prevailing political narrative emphasized the notion of mobs enraged by an obscure video. Once the mob attacked and did some cursory looting, it ran out of steam. That’s the natural behavior of mobs. As the secretary said, “That was the end of it.” Given this viewpoint, the Pentagon did not set in motion hedges against a follow-on attack, or thoroughly analyze the implications of the missing American ambassador.
This led to the second military failure: an inability to improvise. Asked whether, with 20/20 hindsight, he would take any different actions, a puzzled-looking General Dempsey paused and then said no. The military staffs had followed standard operating procedures, dispatching a special ops team from the States and a Marine team from Spain, knowing both would arrive in Libya about 16 to 20 hours later. That was the end of it; the military could do nothing more.
As for sending an F-16 aircraft, the general said that would take 15 hours, and was the wrong tool. You don’t want to “bomb the hell” out of civilians. Again, standard group think cast an instinctive veto without further consideration.
But former SEALs under CIA contract were on the ground in Benghazi, in constant contact with Washington and fully capable of directing the pilot. The F-16 has detection gear that can easily pick out a mortar crew. Even without dropping a single bomb, an F-16 screeching overhead frightens terrorists as well as mobs. Why wouldn’t you dispatch F-16s to take a look?
The Benghazi airport was secure. Two U.S. military and four CIA operatives flew from the embassy at Tripoli to Benghazi and joined the fight. At the U.S. naval base at Sigonella, roughly as close as was Tripoli, recon Marines with extensive combat experience were in their barracks and all sorts of transport aircraft were parked on the runways. The CIA improvised and sent six fighters. The U.S. military choked and sent not one Marine.
Why? Based on performance over the past four years, we know this national-security team looks at war as a deliberate, slow-moving planning exercise. This is the perfect model for employing Special Operations commandos who spend months or years developing a target package and rehearsing until every contingency is anticipated. The end result is a dead Osama bin Laden. But that’s not war; that is excellent detective work capped off by professional SWAT team.
War is chaos, with the enemy often holding the initiative and surprising us, as happened at Benghazi. War is the Twin Towers crashing down and firemen from all different units spontaneously rushing forward. War is hurling whatever force is at hand into the fight, when your ambassador is missing and terrorists are running amok. Until today’s hearing, the motto of the Marines has been: “We’re the nation’s 911 force.” Today, the secretary and the chairman defended the lack of prompt military response by repeatedly saying, “We’re not a global 911.”
That comports with this administration’s view of war; it does not comport with actual events.
— Bing West is a former assistant secretary of defense who has written eight books about combat, including co-authoring the book, Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghanistan War.