At a minimum, the State Department did not take adequate precautions in reaction to mounting threats after urgent requests by officials on the ground. This was a failure of judgment. It was followed by a failure of candor. Senior administration officials gave misleading accounts of the Sept. 11 attack for days — which was days after others in the Obama administration must have known those accounts were misleading.
It is impossible for me to imagine U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton freelancing the false claim that the Benghazi attack was the spontaneous response to a YouTube video instead of being a terrorist attack. So who briefed them with bad information? And why? Those are the loose threads that need pulling.
But this is more than a scandal; it is a symptom. This is an administration that instinctively turns to any artifice — any desperate, dubious claim — rather than talk about an ongoing, escalating global conflict with radical Islamist groups.
The likely involvement of al-Qaeda in the Libyan attack is part of a larger story. The threats arising from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are familiar. But al-Qaeda is also rebuilding in Iraq, where it has doubled in size over the past year. Although al-Qaeda’s organizational “core” has been weakened, its ideology and appeal are durable. Affiliates are adept at exploiting local grievances, particularly in unstable regions of Africa. Boko Haram conducts church attacks in Nigeria. Al-Shabab battles African Union troops in Somalia. Islamists associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb now control much of Mali.
President Obama’s response is, to put it mildly, paradoxical. He is perfectly willing to pull the trigger in a drone strike when he thinks it is useful. But he is strangely reluctant to describe in public the continuing terrorist threat. At their recent convention, Democrats danced a jig on Osama bin Laden’s grave. But this was treated as an achievement of history — like the execution of Tojo — not as one victory in a continuing struggle. As a State Department official once put it, “The war on terror is over” since “we have killed most of al-Qaeda.”
There are several possible explanations for this attitude, beginning with the rawest of politics. Obama wants to be seen as the ender of wars, not as the sponsor of an apparently endless one. So it is useful to assert that al-Qaeda is strategically defeated and that the tide of war is receding. Admitting that there are new fronts in the war on terror undermines this theory. So it becomes attractive to blame an obscure, laughably crude movie for the Benghazi attack.
A related political calculation may also come into play. A portion of Obama’s political base is near the limit of its patience over the drone war — a particularly aggressive form of global preemption. A more aggressive public stance in the war on terror could push more of the left into overt opposition.
It is possible that Obama and his team are ideologically uncomfortable with the war on terror that they are compelled to conduct. They took office trying to deliberately reframe that war as a much-reduced contingency operation against al-Qaeda. They have found, of course, that the threat of Islamist extremism is much broader than al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda itself is often embedded in other movements. So Obama does what is necessary. But a man of the left may find what is necessary to be distasteful and morally tainted.
The most disturbing of possible explanations for Obama’s lack of public leadership in the war on terror concerns Afghanistan. Playing down the strength of al-Qaeda, as well as the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, helps make a precipitous U.S. retreat from Afghanistan easier to swallow. This is what CBS News correspondent Lara Logan recently called “a major lie.”
Whatever the reasons, the results are destructive. The unavoidable disorders of the Arab Spring and the power vacuums of Africa have created an atmosphere hospitable to terrorist threats. But the Obama administration finds this narrative inconvenient — which leaves the American people unprepared. The problem revealed in Libya is not only incompetence or deception. It is also a wartime president who refuses to be a wartime leader.