- - Tuesday, May 27, 2014


The creation of a select committee on Benghazi provides an opportunity to illuminate a major issue that has barely been mentioned — namely, the fact that the United States, together with the French and the British, initiated a military intervention in Libya in 2011 that did not have congressional authorization and appears to have been largely forgotten. The harm goes well beyond the death of four courageous Americans in Benghazi, because of the message it sends to our adversaries — that the U.S. will abandon its soldiers not only in dangerous official missions but also where the U.S. goes to the trouble to intervene militarily.

The episode is not just a question of misleading “talking points” put to the American public, or even about whether there could have been a military response once the attack took place. What is involved is much bigger: whether allies will ever really be able to trust our follow-through and whether our enemies can bank on us to abandon the field in the middle of a war.

A little of the background is appropriate.

The French and British wanted to go into Libya to protect against what was described as a potential massacre in a developing civil war, but what looked beneath the surface to be an effort to protect legacy colonial interests. The U.N. authorized a humanitarian mission, and the Arab League joined. The Obama administration — “leading from behind” — joined as an indispensable partner providing essential intelligence and logistical support that were beyond the capabilities of our allies.

If heading off the rumored ambush of the northwest Libyan coastal town of Mistrata by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces were all that had occurred, the story would have ended there. But as we saw years earlier in Somalia and elsewhere (save for the first Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush), “mission creep” took over and the next thing we knew was that Col. Gadhafi was killed and his sophisticated weapons cache was let loose throughout the region.

Now, as The Financial Times and other news outlets have reported, there is growing chaos in Libya. The weapons have apparently reached all the way to Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as to al Qaeda affiliates throughout the region. The French foreign minister in a recent interview described Libya as a very dangerous place where there had not been enough follow-through. Boko Haram, in the words of French President François Hollande, “is armed with heavy weapons of unimaginable sophistication and the ability to use them.”

One of the ironies of the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya is that one of its major advocates was then-U.S.U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the same official who would later appear on a string of Sunday morning TV shows to attribute the Benghazi attack largely to an anti-Islamic video. She has since been defended as being a stand-in who actually knew nothing about the details behind Benghazi, even though she had served as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs during the Clinton administration before helping organize the Benghazi intervention.

An obvious question is why the United States, France or Britain could not find any assets to deploy to at least try to defend Americans in what was essentially a war zone awash in dangerous weapons. It is true that Britain had withdrawn its ambassador, signaling that it had no intention of following through militarily. But if the U.S. were paying the attention that was appropriate for a military intervention gone bad, it should have either put more assets on higher alert or withdrawn its personnel. The response should not, in any event, have been carrying on as though this was just an ordinary isolated foreign mission in a potentially dangerous place for which the military could not be routinely expected to respond within hours to a surprise attack.

There are many, in Congress and out, who believe that a U.N. resolution is not enough to commit U.S. military forces and that the Constitution requires a congressional authorization to use force. This was not sought in 2011. Had it been, Congress would have either said yes or no — but in either case, this huge mistake that was Benghazi would probably have been avoided, as congressional involvement would very likely have required more attention to follow-through after the intervention began.

C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. “Arbitrary and Capricious” runs monthly.

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