What more could have been done? The Pentagon’s answer is that there wasn’t enough time to deploy forces that could have saved American lives. George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, told me on Wednesday, responding to an initial online version of this column: “Within a few hours, Secretary Panetta ordered all appropriate forces to respond to the unfolding events in Benghazi, but the attack was over before those forces could be employed.”
Administration officials argue that the military, in real life, isn’t a “911” rescue number. Two Joint Special Operations Command teams were moving that night to the Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any other U.S. facility in danger across North Africa. But officials say that the teams didn’t arrive in Sicily until Sept. 12, many hours after the Benghazi attack was over.
Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
As for armed drones or AC-130 Spectre gunships, officials say that they were too far away to help. Unclassified data put the range of Predator and Reaper armed drones at 770 miles and 1,150 miles, respectively. The nearest known base for armed drones, in Djibouti, is about 1,700 miles from Benghazi. Regarding the Spectre gunships, Little said: “No AC-130 was within a continent’s range of Benghazi.”
If these rebuttals are accurate, that raises another troubling question: At a time when al-Qaeda was strengthening its presence in Libya and across North Africa, why didn’t the United States have more military hardware nearby?
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 Woods’s father is understandable: His son’s life might have been saved by a more aggressive response, had one been possible. The Obama administration needs to level with the country about why it made its decisions.
A final, obvious point: The “fog of battle” that night was dense not just in Benghazi but also in Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere. As one official concedes, “The reports were all over the map that night, and there was a lot of confusion.” America needed better intelligence. That’s the toughest problem to address, but the most important.