You’ll never guess who comes off as a hero of the Republican-drafted House Benghazi committee’s majority report: President Barack Obama.
Within 90 minutes of the Sept. 11, 2012, surprise attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and an aide, the report tells us, Obama had told his secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to do everything possible, implicitly including using military force, to protect Americans.
These were “very clear directions,” according to Peter Roskam, R-Ill., one of Obama’s harshest critics on the panel.
How different from the version of the president’s conduct propounded on right-wing talk radio and TV in the aftermath: that he and his aides coolly watched live video of the mayhem in Benghazi, supplied by drones flying overhead, but declined to order a rescue mission.
Not only does this new Republican report debunk that smear, but it actually shifts blame from Obama to “a rusty bureaucratic process not in keeping with the gravity and urgency of the events happening on the ground.” A second attack, on a separate CIA annex, in which security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty died, was already over by the time U.S. military assets started moving toward Libya. And even then, the forces headed to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
To be sure, the report strains to put the most negative construction on these previously reported delays, insinuating but not asserting that Woods and Doherty might have been saved but for the low alert status of U.S. forces overseas or the dithering of officials in Washington. And it’s true: Special units in Europe did not meet their own standards for rapid deployment to Tripoli.
After two years of investigation, however, such tendentious implications are all that remain of the conspiracy theory that the Obama administration told rescuers to “stand down” or otherwise deliberately abandoned Americans on the ground.
And for even that residual implication to have merit, you must believe military force could have been brought to bear between 8:39 p.m. Washington time on Sept. 11 - when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta formally transmitted Obama’s order to Pentagon authorities - and 11:15 p.m., when the mortar attack that killed Woods and Doherty began.
You would also have to be highly confident that such a response would have done more good than harm, given a battlefield that the report describes as “a worst case scenario of circumstances that would test the military’s preparedness and ability to respond.”
The fog of war was thick that night, as the report acknowledges: “The Committee was also struck by the sheer number of government officials involved . . . who did not even know there was a separate U.S. facility in Benghazi referred to as the ‘Annex’ or where the Annex was.” Of course they didn’t know: It was a secret CIA base, reportedly for covertly monitoring loose weaponry such as surface-to-air missiles. They don’t list those bases in the real estate section.
The report makes much of State Department waffling over whether a Spain-based Marine rescue unit should wear uniforms or enter Libyan territory in mufti. Easy to ridicule in hindsight, this concern was perfectly legitimate, given the risk of an international incident or misunderstanding amid the chaos. There sure would have been calls for a congressional investigation if some crazy militia took uniformed Marines for invaders and ambushed them.
Same goes for other Monday-morning quarterbacking: Maybe an armed drone would have helped — if the operator didn’t mistake the Libyan militia that evacuated the CIA annex for a hostile force and blow it away. Maybe Special Operations forces could have reinforced the annex — if they didn’t get killed in crossfire approaching a darkened compound whose physical contours were known to only a handful of intelligence personnel.
Perhaps Obama would be getting less criticism now if he had kept up nonstop meetings, prodding his advisers to do more after he gave his initial order — or perhaps he would be facing charges of micromanagement and refusing to “let the military do its job.”
Painful as it is to admit, in Benghazi, the U.S. government, for all its military power, was at the mercy of terrorists who enjoyed every home-field advantage. Of course, it might never have come to that if Obama hadn’t helped overthrow Libya’s dictator to begin with, or if he’d done a better job stabilizing the place and providing security to U.S. diplomats after Moammar Gadhafi was gone.
Those criticisms are valid, and familiar — but fall into the category of misjudgment and policy error, like the mistake President George W. Bush committed by invading Iraq in the belief it had weapons of mass destruction.
When American foreign policy fails, partisans hunt for policymakers’ sinister motives. What we really need to investigate are their good intentions.
Charles Lane is a writer on the editorial board of The Washington Post.