One of President Obama’s key arguments for military intervention in Syria is that its president, Bashar Assad, violated international norms by using sarin gas. While the Obama administration loudly beats the war drums over Mr. Assad’s violation of international norms, it remains virtually silent on another egregious violation of international norms: the slaying of an American diplomat.
Wednesday marks the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed four Americans serving in Benghazi, Libya — Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department information officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. The targeting of a diplomat breaches norms of civilized behavior that are more deeply rooted than international prohibitions against chemical munitions, yet the Obama administration has still not brought justice to the Benghazi attackers.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry argues that America’s failure to punish Mr. Assad’s use of sarin gas will invite more breaches of this international norm. If this is true, surely the failure of the Obama administration to respond to the terrorist attack in Benghazi will only embolden terrorists looking to target American interests at home and abroad.
Following the attack, Mr. Obama said, “Make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” To date, however, little tangible progress has been made toward exacting justice against the killers.
In August, news reports claimed that the Justice Department filed a number of sealed indictments against suspects affiliated with the Ansar al-Shariah terrorist group, including Ahmed Abu Khattalah. True, the filing of indictments is typically a necessary condition for receiving extradition assistance from other countries, which is something that could prove useful if the culpable jihadists have left Libya. Yet criminal indictments are not a sufficient response for what was clearly an act of war.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the United States treated acts of terrorism as law enforcement matters. The idea was that as jihadists plied their bloody trade, the ordinary wheels of justice were sufficient to find, prosecute and punish them for their misdeeds. Terrorists would have little incentive to continue to attack U.S. interests, so this theory went, if they knew that a firm law enforcement response awaited them. This obviously was not an effective means for dealing with the litany of terrorist attacks — from the Khobar Towers to the USS Cole — that most immediately preceded the attacks 12 years ago.
In this instance, the administration has not even provided a strong law enforcement response.
Mr. Khattala is the reputed Benghazi leader of al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Shariah who claims to have been at the U.S. Consulate during the attack and who Libyan authorities have identified as a commander of the attack. He has remained at large since. On Oct. 17, 2012, Mr. Khattala met openly with a reporter for The New York Times for two hours at a popular, upscale hotel in Benghazi and, while sipping a strawberry frappe, mocked the U.S. response to the attack and its inability to take action against him. Mr. Khattala still has not been questioned by U.S. or Libyan officials, but has since been interviewed by CNN and The Associated Press.
This administration has done everything in its power to persuade the American people that Mr. Assad’s breaking of international norms warrants an American attack on Syria, and has stated repeatedly that American credibility is at stake. What does it say about the credibility of the United States if, one year after the fact, the Obama administration has still not avenged the massacre of our citizens in Benghazi? I would submit that the failure of this administration to bring justice to those who killed a U.S. ambassador and his colleagues has done far greater damage to that credibility than a prudential refusal to become a protagonist in a sectarian conflict in the Islamic world.
Though seemingly willing to launch force against Syria without clear purpose and after having telegraphed our battle plans to the enemy, the administration has for one year not been willing to conduct a reprisal against the Benghazi terrorists. Unlike intervention in Syria’s sectarian conflict, justice for Stevens, Smith, Doherty and Woods is something that would enjoy broad support among the American public.
By striking Ansar al-Shariah, Mr. Obama can avenge the deaths of our American brethren while demonstrating to terrorist groups that the United States will not tolerate their savagery. It is the best way to begin repairing the enormous damage that the administration’s lack of forceful response thus far has done to American credibility. If the president is truly concerned about justice, credibility and American security interests, he must take immediate and robust action to bring the Benghazi terrorists to justice.
Rep. Ron DeSantis is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida.