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Right Turn
Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 10/21/2012

How the administration got in trouble on Libya

I suspect, although we will know for sure tomorrow night, that President Obama will claim organizational incompetence in connection with acknowledging that the Libya jihadist operation was, well, a planned jihadist operation.

The Associated Press reports how quickly confirmation came that this was not a spontaneous mob action. The AP tells us that within 24 hours of the attack “the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants.” However, the report continues, “It is unclear who, if anyone, saw the cable outside the CIA at that point and how high up in the agency the information went. The Obama administration maintained publicly for a week that the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was a result of the mobs that staged less-deadly protests across the Muslim world around the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the U.S.”

This has created a series of contradictions and questions about the president’s handling of the matter. (CNN, among other outlets, had an extensive report.)

Coupled with a New York Times report that a key suspect is sipping a ”strawberry frappe”in plain sight unafraid he might be “hunted down” by the United States. The entire episode threatens to drag down the president on the eve of his final debate.

There are at least three variations of what happened.

The first we’ll call Ideological Denial. It seemed obvious to anyone who cared to think about it that an attack by dozens of heavily armed jihadists on 9-11 that killed an American ambassador was a terrorist attack. James Rosen notes that Jay Carney later was forced to acknowledge this. (“White House Press Secretary Jay Carney finally acknowledged that the terrorism conclusion was ‘self-evident’ after he had spent the previous eight days pressing a wholly different account of events”). When an administration that has politicized national security as badly as this one has finds itself in the midst of a security debacle the first instinct is naturally to look for some explanation that would allow it to continue to trumpet its own “success” in bringing down al-Qaeda and ”leading from behind” in Libya.

Susan Rice, who went on the Sunday talks shows on Sept. 16 may have an out. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “The night before Susan Rice went public with the administration’s assessment that the Sept. 11 U.S. consulate attack in Libya grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video, intelligence analysts were receiving new information that contradicted the account she gave.” But the president was kept in the dark for two weeks? The report notes there was some intentional denseness (in other words “cherry picking” intelligence for strands of information that suit your political needs) here:

Some officials briefed on the initial intelligence were surprised by Ms. Rice’s assertion that the attack was preceded by protests. Intelligence agencies late in that week began to raise questions about the assessment.
“Around that time, I saw no finished products [reports] that said there were peaceful protests,” said one person briefed on the investigation. “There was plenty of stuff that indicated there was the possibility of a coordinated attack.”

The next variation on the theme is Willful Deception. Here the timeline is especially unforgiving to Obama, and was made more so by his insistence that he identified Benghazi as an “act of the terror” on Sept 12. Ordinary people find it hard to understand how a president who supposedly recognized on Sept. 12 the fingerprints of jihadists could, on Sept. 20 and 25, still be hawking the connection to the video. Obviously this president knows that in a jihadist operation, jihadists need no excuse to kill Americans and raise the black flag of al-Qaeda over American turf.

The Willful Deception theory is aided somewhat by State Department briefers who said that no one in State ever reached the conclusion the attack resulted from the anti-Muslim video. So a whole building of people had the right story but the president didn’t? It strains credulity to think even this White House is that clueless. It requires, to borrow a phrase, a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

The third variation is Simple Incompetence. In this take the administration is hobbled by a disengaged president and incompetent, uncoordinated advisers. There is evidence of this throughout the Obama foreign policy operation. The latest account of the endemic ineptness of Obama’s national security team comes from former Obama adviser Rosa Brooks. She writes:

He was a visionary candidate, but as president, he has presided over an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture — one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis, with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks. His national security staff is squabbling and demoralized, and though senior White House officials are good at making policy announcements, mechanisms to actually implement policies are sadly inadequate.

Brooks echoes the same complaints conservatives have been making for years: He lacks any strategy or “decent managers.” Brooks recounts: “President Obama promised to ensure transparency and competence in government, but too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios (I could name names, but will charitably refrain, unless you buy me a drink), while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined.” And of course the national security team ultimately reports to an arrogant, aloof president (“President Obama needs to deal with more people”) who thinks he is too sophisticated to require in-person national security briefings and considers himself uniquely able to discern, for example, the sensibilities of Muslim countries.

In such an atmosphere you could see the president not getting up to speed as fast as his State Department and insisting on a narrative that had been “inoperative” for a relatively long time.

Pick your favorite theory or a combination thereof. Lay blame at the intelligence community or at the feet of national security adviser Tom Donilon, whose job is to make sure all aspect of national security are in sync. But the president, even if not willfully misrepresenting events to the public, has engaged in a great deal of magical thinking ( from refusing to call jihadists “jihadists” to believing he had al-Qaeda on the run to thinking he could engage the mullahs). His executive skills, which lead to havoc and missed opportunities on the domestic side, can prove deadly in matters of war and peace.

Whatever the explanation for the fiasco, it is hard to muster any confidence that this president has the judgment, will or skills to be a successful commander in chief. He hasn’t been one so far.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 10/21/2012

 
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