In the final presidential debate, President Obama told us what he did after the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist murders in Benghazi of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. He also told us what he did to take the United States into Libya before the attack. But he didn’t tell us how and why this terrorist attack occurred or why his administration strenuously avoided calling it that for two weeks. Nor did Mitt Romney pursue him on the subject. So while Libya was mentioned 12 times, we got no closer to the heart of the matter.
Yet, even in a campaign dominated by economic issues, the Benghazi question will not go away, nor should it, because lying behind it is one of the great defects in Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy.
The president and his officials had claimed that the assault was a spontaneous one by Muslim demonstrators offended by an anti-Muhammad video. They were reluctant to admit that it was a premeditated terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists at war with the United States, against whom energetic security measures were warranted but lacking.
For all the dissimilarities, this is reminiscent of the response of the Spanish government of Jose Maria Aznar to the Madrid terrorist bombings that killed 191 people just three days before Spain’s March 2004 general elections. Both governments feared the conclusions that would be drawn if they stated the unvarnished truth.
The Aznar government sought to fix responsibility for the Madrid attacks on ETA, the Basque terrorist organization, rather than on Islamists, who were widely and instantly suspected of being — and in fact turned out to have been — the perpetrators. The Aznar government had taken Spain into Iraq alongside the United States to depose Saddam Hussein. Although this policy was far from popular at home, the administration still had been expected to win re-election. That changed with the implication that the government had sought to obscure the fact that the Madrid bombing was a consequence of Spain’s Iraq involvement. Sensing bad faith, the Spanish public threw out the Aznar government in favor of the opposition, led by Jose Zapatero.
Similarly, the Obama administration has acted on the basis that Islamists are a potentially beneficent force in world affairs and that wisdom dictates coming to terms with those among them who are not engaged in active hostilities against the United States. That’s why Mr. Obama backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt and Tunisia.
Where the two examples diverge is over whether the policies these two administrations were seeking to insulate from criticism were defensible. In Mr. Aznar’s case, they were. In Mr. Obama’s, they are not.
Spain did not become a target of Muslim armed rage in 2003 when Mr. Aznar committed forces to the Iraq war, nor did it cease to be a target in 2004, when Mr. Zapatero withdrew them. An unsuccessful 2008 Islamist suicide attack in Barcelona demonstrated that.
Rather, Spain has been a target of Muslim grievance since 1492, when the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella defeated the Moors and restored Spain’s Andalusia to Christian rule. Still, the Spanish government panicked and failed to present the attack in its historical perspective. For this failure, it paid the price of electoral defeat.
Similarly, Muslim armed rage against the United States does not have a recent origin. As early as 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams discovered that America needed do nothing to incite war from jihadists. The occasion was their meeting in London with Tripoli’s ambassador to Britain, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, to inquire why American merchant ships were being attacked and their crews sold into slavery by Barbary pirates.
Jefferson recorded Adja’s reply: “It was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
The Aznar policy to depose dictators clattering with weapons of mass destruction and coddling jihadists was defensible. The Obama policy to assist the most retrograde forces in the Muslim world to obtain power and influence is not. Benghazi is one of its results. This could not be avowed, however, so an obscure video was proffered as the rationale for the attack. Whether Mr. Obama may yet pay a price for this remains uncertain, but the threat remains, as does the policy that magnified it.
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University.