On the night of September 11, 2012, elements of al Qaeda launched a well-coordinated attack on the poorly defended U.S. consulate in war-torn Benghazi, Libya. The attack was the culmination of the Obama Administration’s disastrous foreign policy for the region, which could best be described as democracy promotion through thoughtless regime change.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens, State Department Information Service Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods all paid with their lives for this naïve policy. As we approach the sixth anniversary of this gruesome event, the Trump Administration needs to consider a fundamental reassessment of US. policy in what Andrew J. Bacevich calls the “Greater Middle East.” Failure to do so will ensure that the United States is in for more Iraq-style conflicts and Benghazi-style assaults—to say nothing of another horror like the original September 11, 2001 attack.
Such an outcome is unacceptable.
Inexplicably, after the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the country’s subsequent collapse into anarchy, American policymakers believed they had won a major victory. With the Syrian Civil War brewing, Washington’s “Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party” sought to replicate that “success.” So, a covert plot was hatched essentially to redistribute Gaddafi’s powerful (and unaccounted for) weapons from the hands of Libyan “rebels,” through Turkey, and into the waiting, blood-stained hands of purported Syrian “rebels” (read, jihadis).
Thus, a true regional expert, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, was dispatched to Libya. Once there, Stevens was supposed to use his contacts within the Libyan population to negotiate a hand-off of the massive stores of weapons to American-backed proxies. What few understood was how deeply penetrated by jihadi elements the Libyan rebel movement had already become. Stevens thought he was negotiating with friendly locals. Instead, he was being set up by al Qaeda.
Facilitating Covert Action
Following the harrowing events of the Benghazi consulate attack, many questioned how an American ambassador—the civilian equivalent of a four-star general—could have been allowed to enter into Benghazi with such a small security detachment, and to stay at the poorly defended consulate. The answer should now be apparent: the covert nature of the Stevens mission meant that he needed to maintain a low-profile.
Not only was an arms redistribution plot highly dangerous, but had the harebrained scheme been publicly revealed in the midst of the contentious 2012 presidential election, it might well have proven politically toxic for President Obama.
The Anatomy of a Cover-Up—and the Unlikely Fallout
We now know from various accounts that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as former CIA Director David Petraeus, advocated an ambitious program of arming various Syrian rebel factions in the Syrian Civil War. Theirs was not a popular policy even among the Obama national security team. In fact, it was so unpopular that the Obama team decided not to make an official determination about whether or not to arm the Syrian rebels. In this murky area of indecision they hatched a plan for a limited program to move weapons from Libya into Syria through Turkey.
The Libyan-arms-for-Syrian rebels plan lent plausible deniability to a politically besieged President Obama, while placating the foreign policy establishment, which wanted desperately to arm the Syrian rebels, and remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria.
This covert action explains why no aid ultimately was rendered to the stricken ambassador and his gallant-though-outnumbered defenders—despite the fact that the White House knew of the pending attack at least an hour before it began. It also explains how the Obama team had a cover-story at the ready, in the form of the much-maligned anti-Muslim YouTube video maker, upon whom they erroneously placed the blame for having inspired the terrorist attack.
What’s more, the outcome in Benghazi explains the public tarring of David Petraeus. It’s unlikely that the well-informed Obama team did not know of Petraeus’ extramarital affair with his personal biographer, Paula Broadwell, before he was nominated to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011.
Blaming Petraeus for the Benghazi mess insulated President Obama from the full political fallout ahead of his reelection in 2012 and protected Hillary for her inevitable presidential run in 2016 (or so they thought). As an added bonus, Petraeus’s public humiliation eliminated him as a potential Republican presidential contender in 2016.
Challenging the Deep State Orthodoxy
Few in government at the time (or since) have questioned the logic of supporting either the Libyan or Syrian rebel factions. The underlying principle for supporting such groups was the questionable cause of “democracy promotion” in the Middle East. In effect, then, Obama’s foreign policy was no better than that of the much-maligned George W. Bush and his “Freedom Agenda” for the region.
Here is another sad example of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that defines the so-called “deep state” which has a reflexive, almost sacramental, faith in the salutary benefits of “democracy” at all times and everywhere.
Unless President Trump challenges the deep state’s basic assumptions about the Middle East, the Americans are likely to find ourselves mired in ongoing conflict there, which will only further damage our credibility in the region. That is why we should never forget what actually happened in Benghazi six years ago—while continuing to demand answers from the government. It’s time to abandon the elite’s whimsical fixation on “democracy promotion” through regime change. It is also time to rein in the excesses of America’s covert intelligence agencies—before it’s too late.
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