The Benghazi incident and the Syrian civil war are linked in a number of ways. They are both bloody after-effects of the Arab Spring. They both highlight the spread of jihadists into war-torn countries. They both point to the monumental task that rebuilding a nation and its institutions will require following the overthrow of a dictator. But they are linked, tragically, in expressions of this administration’s disinclination to act and its convictions that U.S. action only makes things worse.

In Syria, the “leading from behind” strategy has been apparent for two years as we’ve watch tens of thousands murdered and more than a million refugees pour out, all the while losing track of where Bashar al-Assad may have stashed his WMDs.

Hillary Rodham Clinton Hillary Clinton testifying on Benghazi. In the row behind her is confidant Cheryl Mills, who has been accused of trying to intimidate State Department official Gregory Hicks (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The red-line bluff and fold is only the latest example of Obama’s conviction that the United States should never act. Before, it was too soon (diplomacy!); now, it is too late. And Assad was “on the verge” of getting kicked out anyway. Pentagon officials insisted that we couldn’t act because of Syria’s top-notch anti-aircraft defenses. (We should have been suspicious since the only thing the Assad regime excels at is terror.) Israel blew that fable away with its sorties.

Benghazi was the aftermath of a war the president didn’t want to engage, entered late and then forgot about. As jihadists moved in, we turned a blind eye.

But the scandal of Benghazi is also the refusal to act when our own people were attacked. The most devastating part of this week’s testimony of Gregory Hicks and Mark Thompson was their description of the refusal to send rescue teams (first from Aviano Air Base in Italy and then from the Libyan capital, Tripoli). We don’t even know who made that call. It’s wasn’t Hillary Clinton, for certain, since despite her many powers, control of the military was not among them. The defense secretary said it wasn’t him. Who else in the executive branch would have undertaken that responsibility?

Were we convinced that it was too late to respond? Did we not want to acknowledge the seriousness of the incident by sending in force? Again, the conviction was that doing nothing was better than doing something.

In Benghazi we have no idea who made that call. We don’t know why it was made. And we don’t know if it could have made a difference. The witnesses this week thought the forces could have arrived in time to save two of the Americans killed in the mortar fight. Maybe this is another instance in which the administration falsely assumed that making a bigger deal of things (rescuing our people) wasn’t worth it. Perhaps that was a political decision, maybe it wasn’t. Was the failed Iranian hostage rescue on someone’s mind?

This is one of many reasons why we need a full accounting of Benghazi. Gen. David Petraeus, as I indicated yesterday, would be very adept at explaining these things, especially since, as has now been widely reported, Benghazi was more likely a CIA, rather than a State Department, operation when our people were killed. (Think about that: The head of the CIA at the time surely knew who prevented our people from receiving help. If he didn’t, he would have been turning over tables to find out.) Not being straight with the American people is one thing, but refusing to rescue our people is quite another.

Benghazi, then, is not only a scandal and an open question but also the personification of “leading from behind.” We do not initiate action, then we don’t respond when threatened (or in the case of Syria, when the region is threatened by opening Pandora’s box of chemical weapons use.)

A foreign policy built around a flimsy and false premise — action should be avoided at all cost, the United States makes things worse — naturally requires a good deal of excuse-making. What we need to know in Benghazi is whether it also entailed some out-and-out lies and the betrayal of four Americans whom someone determined couldn’t be saved.