In her opening remarks Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had this to say: “Benghazi didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. And instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria.”

Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

Interesting. It wasn’t in a vacuum and yet we had no reason to reassess our security in Libya, no warrant to consider whether al-Qaeda had come to dominate a region in which we touted our leading-from-behind strategy?

Clinton then oddly asserted, “Concerns about terrorism and instability in North Africa are not new. Indeed they have been a top priority for our entire national security team.” Really? Then how could we be so blind to the implications for our people in Libya, and why is the president running around to tell us al-Qaeda has been decimated?

The Wall Street Journal editorial board quotes her: “We cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root; our interests suffer; our security at home is threatened.” The board notes, “That’s nice to hear, and even true, but too bad it bears no resemblance to the actual North African policy this Administration was and still is pursuing. The Obama policy was to be absent from Libya after the fall of Gadhafi, which led to the inattention to Benghazi security, which led to extremism taking root, which led to the attack that killed four Americans. For that, she is responsible.”

As for Chuck Hagel, he better know his stuff. In his hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he’ll be facing James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the most-traveled senator to Africa in the chamber’s history and who has been after the Obama administration to focus on the growing al-Qaeda presence in North Africa.

From Clinton’s testimony, you can imagine a number of lines of questioning:

Inhofe, for example, has made the point that U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, and relies on U.S. European Command for manpower, has less than 5,000 boots on the African continent. This number is incredibly small to cover 54 countries and over 12 million square miles. So why hasn’t the administration — if it were aware of the North Africa situation — placed AFRICOM in, you know, Africa? How will we adequately supply and fund this command if the Pentagon in making wholesale cuts in national security?

Did the failure to take action against the Benghazi terrorists contribute to the Algeria terror attack? How are we going to fund, pursue and take action in the future against al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups? Do we have a strategy?

If al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been such a threat, why did we not step up in Mali and why have we dragged our feet as the French stepped forward?

Kori Schake writes:

The fighters mowing across the country in conjunction with al Qaeda are veterans of the war in Libya, armed with weapons looted there. They are part of the widespread insecurity that Libya’s transition has spawned and U.S. policy has done nothing to attenuate. So we bear some culpability for the terror engulfing Mali. And it is in our security interest — and in the interest of the administration’s vision for the new international order — to stamp it out.

And yet our ambassador to the United Nations publicly described the French plan as “crap,” and delayed U.N. action for weeks. When France commenced military operations to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from overrunning Mali’s capital, the Obama administration demanded payment for any military support provided. Ten days into the operation. U.S. officials haven’t even decided whether to make requested air-to-air refueling sorties available for French planes.

If this is correct, how can we be said to be taking the al-Qaeda threat seriously?

If we continue to slash defense spending, would we be able, for example, to deal simultaneously with a major terrorist conflagration in North Africa and a crisis in Asia or elsewhere?

To be frank, Clinton’s statement that we’ve been on top of North Africa is hard to square with the facts. Even harder is to square are the president’s declaration that “a decade of war is over” and his determination to hollow out the defense budget.

Obama’s nominees should be questioned about this, and about their own level of awareness of the North Africa threat (Hagel never sounded any warning sign) and their continued enthusiasm for big defense cuts. And if Hagel is there just to slash the Pentagon budget, what is going to happen if we need him to do something, like combat the North Africa terror threat?

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.