President Obama is having no luck convincing voters and the media there is nothing amiss regarding his handling of the Benghazi attack.
My colleague David Ignatius is among the latest to acknowledge that there are real questions about what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, and why there was no deployment of forces for a rescue attempt. (“Why didn’t the United States send armed drones or other air assistance to Benghazi immediately?. . .Looking back, it may indeed have been wise not to bomb targets in Libya that night. Given the uproar in the Arab world, this might have been the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a burning fire. But the anguish of [slain Tyrone] Woods’s father is understandable: His son’s life might have been saved by a more aggressive response. The Obama administration needs to level with the country about why it made its decisions.”)
It is not lost on Obama critics that the president’s visible presence in overseeing Sandy clean-up operations (which are essentially run by state and local authorities once the president releases funds) stands in sharp contrast to his role in Benghazi. Was he consulted on the rescue? Did he call it off?
Quite apart from what Obama did or didn’t do once the attack was underway, there are still many open questions, as Paul Wolfowitz reels off:
- The persistent misleading comments about the motives of the attackers.
- The failure to do more in advance to respond to the evidence — including pleas by Ambassador Stevens himself — to provide better security for US facilities in Benghazi or for the Embassy in Tripoli.
- The low priority given to AFRICOM — which had hardly any forces assigned to it — despite growing evidence since the start of the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya almost two years ago that the governments in those countries (particularly in Libya) were incapable of providing adequate security.
- The failure, after Qaddafi’s fall, to begin quickly training, equipping, and organizing capable Libyan forces so that the new Libyan government — which is evidently pro-American — could exercise better control over security. (To be fair, we were also slow previously in building up Afghan and Iraqi security forces, but why make the same mistake a third time?)
- The strategy of “leading from behind” during the Libyan uprising, which left the training and equipping of the Libyan opposition to governments that do not share our views about which groups should be armed — and even gave priority to Islamist militias over others.
- The current repetition of that same mistake in Syria, creating a situation where Islamist groups appear to be the ones which are best armed.
As he puts it, “The administration has a lot to answer for, even if the facts confirm that it did its best, once the attacks began, to protect the personnel who had been endangered by its previous policy failures.”
Interestingly, likely voters don’t like what they have seen. In the latest CBS/New York Times poll likely voters disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Libya attacks by a margin of 51 percent to 38 percent. Among independents disapproval is even higher at 57 percent.
Libya won’t be the decisive issue for the vast majority of voters, but it has cast Obama’s foreign policy leadership in a negative light. Moreover, win or lose next week, Obama owes the country an explanation of what he knew, when he knew it and what he did. Or was he AWOL during the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in 33 years?