Earlier this month something happened in Niger that’s happened countless times before in our 16-year war against jihadists: An allied patrol was lured into an ambush, and American soldiers died. Based on the early reports (the Washington Post has perhaps the most thorough summary), it was a particularly vicious firefight, and American troops were unusually vulnerable. They weren’t in armored vehicles, they didn’t have readily available air cover, and they even had to rely on contractors to evacuate the wounded. Tragically, one soldier was killed after getting separated from his unit during the fight, and it took two days to recover his body.
Make no mistake, there is much to investigate in this incident, and investigations are already underway. The mission itself was uncontroversial. Barack Obama first sent American troops to Niger to assist French military operations in Mali, and they’ve been there ever since, conducting drone operations and training allied soldiers. There’s evidence that American personnel had conducted similar operations alongside allied troops many times without incident.
But this time things were obviously different. This time we may have been betrayed, and we may not have been fully prepared for the consequences. The losses were a shock here at home. Most Americans had no clue that we had forces in Niger, and despite heavy losses in multiple engagements across years of war, we’re still not used to seeing special-forces soldiers fall, especially not so many at once.
The shock of course quickly turned to curiosity. The president was silent. The engagement seemed hidden behind the fog of war, and days after the ambush we still lacked a thorough account. Then, the story got obscured by the disturbing, confusing controversy over President Trump’s phone call to Sergeant La David T. Johnson’s wife.
By midweek, the curiosity had turned into partisan vitriol. One Democratic lawmaker called Niger “Trump’s Benghazi,” a Newsweek piece made the same comparison, and Twitter is aflame with angry Democrats — still bitter over the years-long investigations of the Benghazi attack — demanding hearings. Do they have a point? Are the situations similar?
Yes and no.
So far there is zero evidence of the second and most significant aspect of the Benghazi controversy — a lie and/or a cover-up — in Niger.
Two factors combined to turn Benghazi into a years-long controversy — one that featured justifiable outrage and necessary hearings but also contained more than its fair share of unwarranted partisan obsession and absurd conspiracy theories. The first factor, of course, is politics. Terrorists killed a U.S. ambassador in the midst of a presidential campaign where the incumbent was running in part on his success in diminishing the terrorist threat, and the likely next Democratic nominee was responsible for the ambassador’s mission and security. There was no way that Republicans wouldn’t put that incident under a microscope, as Democrats would have done if the roles were reversed.
The second factor was the falsehood — the great deception. As we all know, very soon after the attack the administration repeatedly and loudly misled the American people. Obama’s defenders claim that his spokesmen were relying on faulty intelligence and mistaken talking points when they told America that a planned, coordinated terrorist assault (one that came perilously close to becoming a horrific massacre) was in reality a spontaneous response to an offensive YouTube video. Yet we now know that even as the administration was telling the American people the video was to blame, they were saying very different things to allies and their own family members in private. In other words, there is overwhelming evidence that the Obama administration lied not just to the American public but also to the fathers and mothers of those who died.
This was a despicable act, and the lie was so bad — so incredible from the start — that of course it spawned intense anger. Of course it spawned congressional hearings and comprehensive investigations. The fact that some politicians and pundits took things too far does not change the Obama administration’s culpability for its own falsehood.
And let’s not forget, these investigations revealed three great failures: A failure to adequately protect a U.S. ambassador in spite of multiple warnings that he could be in danger, a failure to provide timely relief to embattled Americans caught in a desperate, hours-long fight for their lives when that danger materialized, and a failure to tell America the truth afterward. These failures were significant enough that they would have ended the careers and political ambitions of virtually any secretary of state not named Hillary Clinton.
So, what about Niger? Yes, politics come into play — just as they did in Benghazi. Democrats are asking questions, and they’re right to ask questions. It’s a healthy aspect of our two-party system that there’s always someone there to demand answers, to refuse to automatically accept the official explanation. Though some will always go too far, there’s nothing wrong with diligent investigation in search of the truth.
But so far there is zero evidence of the second and most significant aspect of the Benghazi controversy — a lie and/or a cover-up — in Niger. Instead, it looks like a conventional military operation gone awry, something that happened all the time under each of our last three presidents, and that happens all the time in war more generally. While Trump’s silence immediately after the attack troubles some, I find it infinitely preferable to the Obama administration’s lies immediately after Benghazi.
If an investigation reveals failures, let’s deal with the failures. If it reveals something greater — like administration malfeasance — then we can revise our assessment and elevate the controversy. Until then, we’re left with the facts that we have, and the facts that we have reveal the costs borne by a nation at war. Niger’s a tragedy, but it’s not Benghazi.