It took nearly four years into his presidency to know what Barack Obama would do when confronted with an unexpected international crisis demanding immediate action to save American lives. Americans got their answer when al Qaeda-inspired terrorists overran and torched the U.S. Consulate and intelligence annex in Benghazi, Libya, killing the U.S. ambassador, a foreign service officer and two former Navy SEALs, and breaching a facility housing sensitive U.S. secrets.
Americans under assault in Libya urgently and repeatedly asked their superiors in Washington to send U.S. military reinforcements. Their requests were denied, presumably by President Obama who has the final say in such matters. It will surely go down as one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history, especially since the most sacred duty of a president is to protect U.S. citizens.
The military-style attack began about 3:30 p.m. EST (9:30 p.m. in Libya), as Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gathered in the Oval Office for a scheduled meeting. The assault lasted approximately seven hours, and was undoubtedly watched in its entirety by top White House, State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agency officials on live video, fed by ground-based infrared cameras and imagery from at least one unmanned drone.
The Benghazi attack horrified the Obama White House and re-election team. For more than a year, they presented the U.N. Security Council-approved, NATO military operation in Libya as a model of international cooperation, freeing Libyans from a tyrant and bringing democracy to the people. To further bolster Mr. Obama's security credentials, they also claimed al Qaeda was on the verge of defeat after Osama bin Laden's killing. In doing so, they forgot history's hard lesson: Seeing things as you wish them to be rather than as they really are can be deadly.
After newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens arrived at his post in May, he reported conditions there as "unpredictable, volatile and violent." During the post-Moammar Gadhafi period and up to the Sept. 11 anniversary attack, the U.S. documented more than 200 security incidents (gunfights and bombings), including attacks in Benghazi on the British ambassador, the International Red Cross Office and the U.S. mission. An August report, "Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile," produced by a Defense Department combating-terrorism office and published by the Library of Congress, further documented the rising al Qaeda threat.
What should we learn from Benghazi, and what steps can we take to ensure such a disaster never occurs again?
1. The U.S. should not engage in a military conflict unless U.S. national security is threatened and Congress approves. This did not happen in Mr. Obama's Libyan military intervention. Duly elected representatives of the American people should be the ones debating, making war decisions and setting legal war parameters, not a small group of administration officials, U.N. and NATO representatives and bureaucrats with varying security interests and agendas.
2. The U.S. should have military security details, like the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, assigned to U.S. overseas missions where there is documented evidence of significant danger to American diplomats. Their sheer presence could deter or repel attacks like this one in Benghazi. There are currently Marine details at 148 State Department outposts, but not Libya. Inexplicably, the State Department removed a 16-person U.S. military security unit over the objections of the late ambassador about a month before the fatal attack, and didn't bother to enhance security on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
3. The United States should never hesitate to use military might to save American lives, even when host governments object. U.S. military rapid deployment forces and airborne gunships could have arrived in Benghazi from regional U.S. bases in less than two hours.
4. Mr. Obama should take a tip from Harry "The Buck Stops Here" Truman, and accept responsibility for the Libya debacle. He also has an obligation to tell the American people whether he or any appointed administration official denied military assistance to those under siege in Benghazi.
5. Mr. Obama should ask his attorney general to appoint an independent investigator to examine all aspects of the Benghazi attack. The State Department investigation currently under way and touted by the president will not satisfy many Americans because of conflicting interests and statements of Department officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, American Foreign Service Association President Susan Johnson (who represents more than 31,000 active and retired Foreign Service Officers), and others who publicly perpetrated the administration myth that an obscure anti-Islam video served as the catalyst for the attack.
Finally, the situation in Benghazi demanded courage, swiftness, decisiveness and good judgment to save American lives. Sadly, Mr. Obama didn't display any of those qualities on that fateful night, choosing instead to turn his back on undersecured and outgunned Americans pleading for help. Come Election Day, Americans may turn their backs on him.
Fred Gedrich, who served in the Departments of State and Defense, is a foreign policy and national security analyst.
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