Embassy Attacks

Changing Story on Embassy Attacks Shows How U.S. Policy is Turning Into Shiite

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These colors don't run; they just sort of flit around from one place to another.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is giving closed-door testimony to the House today about the ongoing attacks on U.S. embassies. Given the tenor of the State Department's recent comments, we can expect the secret meeting to focus on such hot topics as whether Innocence of Muslims or YouTube itself is to blame, and whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would have been less insulting to Mohammed if they'd been rendered in manga or franco-belge style. 

But the Obama administration's handling of the embassy attacks has been an absurd combination of fecklessness, obfuscation and misdirection. 

The administration's claim that the deadly attack on the mission in Libya was not premeditated is contradicted by both eyewitnesses and warnings provided by the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, who gave ample alerts that al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists were planning an attack and even noted that he was himself on a death list. 

The administration also apparently gave erroneous accounts of what the two Navy SEALs killed in the Libya attack were doing at the embassy, and its explanation for why there was not sufficient security in Benghazi amounts to legalistic hair-splitting. If you're going to maintain diplomatic facilities (and I agree with Gary Johnson that you shouldn't), it's gross negligence not to protect them. 

The Obama foreign policy team does appear to be edging toward an admission that the Libya attack (at least) was a terrorist episode, and this is a welcome development. But it certainly creates new complexities for the administration. Attacks on embassies have been viewed as acts of war since the beginning of the republic. They have not always been responded to as such, and the president's domestic political opponents will no doubt make the technical point that there has been an attack on U.S. soil during President Obama's watch. But it's not cricket to lie about the circumstances of a deadly attack just because it might give ammunition to Mitt Romney. 

All of this comes after more than a week of claims by team Obama that the embassy attacks – which have been taking place over an area of more than three million square miles and for one of which (the mob attack in Cairo) the brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is claiming credit – are a spontaneous reaction to a film nobody has seen, and that the problem could be solved if there were more effective means of censoring media that insults Muslims

This explanation would be fishy even if we didn't have a very plausible one – that the September 11 attacks are a new offensive by a Sunni terror movement that is not nearly as dead as we were led to believe – right in front of us. I hope that isn't the correct answer (and haven't we spent trillions of dollars over the last 11 years to get better answers to just that question?), but it's beyond infantilization for the administration to refuse to entertain it. 

I've been saying "Obama" and "the administration" despite my conviction that American foreign policy is more or less consistent (and consistently bad) no matter who the president is. So here's what I'm wondering: If we are going to stay in the Great Game of trying to force outcomes in the Islamic world, why are we not leaning toward the Shiites, who are outnumbered nine-to-one and whose quest for a nuclear weapon is perfectly understandable given their international position? Didn't we just fight a massive war in Iraq, the apparently unintended result of which was to strengthen political Shiism? Why throw that advantage away? 

The first principle of power diplomacy is that you back the side that can't achieve total victory. Yet right now, amid Sunni attacks on American assets everywhere from Indonesia to North Africa, the main policy question being considered by the D.C. establishment is why we're not at war with Iran and Syria, and the only action the United States has taken against a foreign state that could be construed as an act of war – the introduction of the Stuxnet virus – was against Iran. It would be naive to expect straight answers, but I'll ask anyway: How does any of this make sense?