Administration’s reluctance to call Libya terror “terror” doesn’t serve U.S. interests
By Ken K. Gourdin
One need not read very much of what I have written to conclude that I hold law enforcement in general in high esteem. Still, I wonder, what is the wisdom of sending the FBI to Benghazi, Libya to investigate the murders of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, along with three embassy security officials?
I do value the notions of cooperation between nations (“comity” is the legal/political term for it) and of respecting the sovereignty of other nations. However, one wonders how much respect Libyan officials have for those notions, given the fact that they seem not to have taken their duty to protect United States territory within their borders seriously enough to prevent the murders.
FBI officials securing the cooperation of Libyan officials and citizens in order to bring those responsible for the murders to justice will be hard enough. Even if they manage to do so, the two additional hurdles they face are one, that they lack jurisdiction to make any arrests even if they do find the culprits, and two, the U.S. lacks an extradition treaty with Libya.
There are times when, and circumstances under which, perhaps notions of comity and sovereignty between nations ought to take a back seat to protecting U.S. interests. The notion that the United States is merely one nation in a world of equals might seem appealing on many levels.
However, the notion of the U.S. as one nation in a world of equals is only workable if every nation is equally capable of defending its own interests without looking to any “would-be superpowers” for help. International egalitarianism among equals (which are also equally capable) is nice in theory, but it would not work well in practice precisely because equal capability exists only in theory.
Other nations have turned to the U.S. throughout history because, as distasteful as this notion is to those who like to think it is merely one nation among equals, such a notion is true only in theory: it was only the involvement of the U.S. in past conflicts which turned back German, Japanese, North Korean, North Vietnamese, Iraqi, and Taliban aggression.
As distasteful as the notion is, there are times when (while a full-scale military operation may not be proportional to the wrong committed) genuine spycraft is still called for. This seems to be one of those times. I can only conclude that the president’s determination to treat this incident, instead, as a law enforcement matter stems from one of two possible causes (if not both of them).
One, the U.S. may simply lack the intelligence assets required to treat this incident as more than a law enforcement matter; and two, the president—having proven his intelligence and military bona fides as commander-in-chief by ordering the operation which was successful in slaying Osama bin Laden, is reluctant to admit that any intelligence and security failures occurred on his watch rather than that of his predecessor.
I can only surmise that such reluctance also underlies the more-than-weeklong reticence of Obama Administration officials to call this incident what it is: an act of terrorism rather than a mere crime. After all, Obama Administration officials have long since declared the end to President Bush’s “war on terror.”
Update – September 29, 2012: Now we learn that the FBI has not actually been on the ground at our embassy in Benghazi, Libya; rather, the closest they’ve been able to get is 400 miles away in Tripoli. Why? Putatively, because of concerns regarding agents’ security. (See, e.g., David D. Kirkpatrick, Eric Schmitt, and Michael S. Schmidt (September 28, 2012), “Security Fears Hobble Inquiry on Libya Attack,” The New York Times, accessed on line at the following address on September 29, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/world/africa/security-fears-hobble-inquiry-of-libya-attack.html?ref=world&_r=0. By contrast, more than a handful of journalists have been on the ground in Benghazi for some time now.
Had the president actually taken decisive action in response to the murders (even an action with which people might disagree, such as treating them as a law enforcement matter rather than as an act of terrorism), even an arguably-less-effective decisive action would have been better than no action at all. From a law enforcement perspective—given the fact (previously discussed) that securing the cooperation of Libyan officials and citizens will be hard enough even under the best of circumstances (which these are not)—this is already a cold case. Evidence deteriorates; witnesses (whether cooperative or hostile) disappear; memories fade.
President Obama’s actions in response to the murders fly in the face of the image of the decisive leader as which he sought to portray himself by touting his decision to order the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special operators. The president’s actions in response to that opportunity stand in stark contrast to his response to this incident. Enough moral ambiguity surrounded the military operations ordered by President George W. Bush that reasonable minds could disagree about the propriety of those actions: then-Senator Obama certainly did. No such moral ambiguity exists here, yet President Obama’s actions have been much less decisive.
One wonders which of these things matter more to the president: appearances, or actions; intentions, or results? During his career as a police officer, my father’s performance was regularly evaluated by his superiors. One of the options for rating him was, “Does just enough to get by.” In the president’s case, the analogous option might be, “Does just enough to keep up appearances in order to secure reelection.”
Update – 9 October 2012: The FBI has finally been on the ground at our diplomatic site in Libya for a short time. I’m left to wonder what useful information and evidence the FBI possibly could uncover about this now long-cold case.
Despite attempts to obfuscate the real motivation of the perpetrators of what happened at our diplomatic site in Libya, we now learn that Obama administration officials knew almost immediately that this incident was a terrorist attack. See http://www.thedailybeast.com/videos/2012/09/27/anderson-cooper-administration-officials-knew-almost-immediately-that-this-was-a-terror-attack.html, last accessed on this date.
For the most detailed moment-by-moment account I have found of what happened in Libya, see http://www.hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_US_LIBYA_TIMELINE?SITE=UTSAC&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT, last accessed on this date. I get it. The Obama Administration cannot call this incident terror because the president apparently has decided that the only thing left to do to win (President Bush’s!) “War on Terror” was to kill Osama bin Laden. (Mission accomplished!) Since President Obama apparently has decided that we’re going to treat incidents such as this as criminal and law enforcement matters, the War on Terror is over, all right, but someone forgot to tell the terrorists.
Update – 24 January 2013: Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. While I was not riveted on the Secretary’s every word, to me, the most telling moment in her testimony came when she grew testy under questioning by Representative Ron Johson (R – WI). In response to Rep. Johnson repeating the oft-aired claim that United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice repeatedly misled the American people regarding the motive for the attacks by attributing them to an anti-Islam video, the Secretary dismissed the need to find out why the attacks happened. Here is how CNN reported the Secretary’s response:
Shouting and gesturing with her arms in frustration, Clinton shot back: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided they’d go kill some Americans?”
Her fists shaking, she continued: “What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.” [See link below.]
CNN’s full report of the hearing can be found here, last accessed January 24, 2013: http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/23/politics/clinton-benghazi/index.html. Had I been on the committee, I would have responded like this: “It makes a difference what the attackers’ motives were, Madam Secretary, because if we don’t know why they did what they did, we have no way of preventing such attacks from happening again.” But of course, no Republican on the committee possibly could care about that. No, no . . . they simply wanted to use the attack, and the deaths which resulted from it, to score cheap political points. Right, Madam Secretary?
Update: 14 February 2013 – National Review’s Rich Lowry commented on the Obama Administration’s public relations strategy following the Libya attack thus: http://m.sltrib.com/sltrib/mobile2/55824700-218/obama-president-benghazi-attack.html.csp. I agree with Lowry’s analysis.
Update, 18 April 2013: Benghazi, Boston, and Policymaking via Dartboard – Furtherance of political ends is one of the hallmarks of terrorism. That’s why terrorists usually are quick to publicize their grievances and their demands in connection with their violent acts. (Or, such grievances and demands relatively easily can be inferred from the context of the violence.) Yet we have yet to hear any such grievances or demands in connection with the two pressure-cooker bombs that were detonated at the Boston Marathon on Monday, March 15, nor are those things easily inferable from the context of where and when the bombings took place. The President hesitated for weeks to call the attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a terrorist attack despite what seemingly could have been easily inferred from where and when the attack took place. Yet, even in the absence of such evidence, he called the Boston bombings terrorism almost immediately.
I can only conclude that the Obama Administration has a dartboard, with one half marked “Terrorism” and another half marked “Mere Crime.” Whenever a high-profile, criminal loss of life occurs, President Obama or some designated Administration official throws a dart at the board and responds according to which half of the board the dart hits. Benghazi: “Ready? One, two, three! Oh, gee, given where and when it occurred, I would’ve thought for sure that one was terrorism, but we have to go with what the dartboard says: Mere Crime.” Boston: “Ready? One, two, three! Well, heck, I know we don’t know who did it or why, so it’s tough to call this one terrorism, but we have to go with what the dartboard says again: [President Obama shrugs] Terrorism it is.”
Update, September 13, 2013 – I must, however grudgingly, give President Obama (and his dartboard!) his due: they were right about the Boston Marathon bombing, but that doesn’t explain his tepid response to acts of terrorism abroad (at least, to acts in which Americans have been killed—but not Syrians!) as I explain further below.
Update II: September 13, 2013 – Whew! I sure am glad [President Bush’s] “War on Terror” is over . . . but will someone please tell the terrorists? (“Cessation of hostilities” notwithstanding, inexplicably, they keep attacking our embassies.) See http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/09/12/car-bomb-afghanistan-consulate/2808089/, last accessed today.
President Obama says the U.S. must attack Syria in order to dispel the idea that the U.S. leaders, as well as like-minded leaders of other nations of the world, will permit the use of chemical weapons with impunity. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/running-transcript-president-obamas-sept-10-speech-on-syria/2013/09/10/a8826aa6-1a2e-11e3-8685-5021e0c41964_story.html, last accessed today. Now if President Obama would only apply that same logic to his Administration’s handling of terrorist attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, and now in Herat, Afghanistan on September 12, 2013, and next in [Fill-in-Name-of-(Probably-Near-Eastern) Country Here] on [Fill-in-Date Here (Next September, Probably?)]. (And if only he were as eager to protect United States citizens serving in the foreign service abroad as he seems to be to protect Syrian “women and children”).
I know I’m simply being unfair to the president. No one should be allowed to question his resolve to protect U.S. citizens throughout the world, since the killing of Osama bin Laden happened on his watch. That single act is the equivalent of a permanent “Get-out-of-Jail-Free” Card when it comes to defending himself against questioning of his response to terrorism (if there were such a thing as terrorism, that is!)