For all the mystery surrounding what exactly happened in Libya on September 11, the basic facts are not in question: The U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annex was assaulted and the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed. The Obama administration has been less than forthcoming about events, and critics have rightly pressed for answers.
The net effect of all this, though, has been to create first and foremost a political battle over whether someone lied to the press or to the American people. The search for the liar (did Obama always know the attack wasn't triggered by the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims) or an incompetent (did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton really wave off requests for heightened security?) obscures far more troubling issues about the U.S. presence in Libya.
Let's take a step back. In 2009, President Obama embarked on what Mitt Romney and Republicans have characterized as an "apology tour." The president visited many nations and acknowledged some mistakes in past U.S. policy. He also promised that the country would do better in the future. Of course, any sort of self-criticism of foreign policy is unacceptable to interventionist-minded Republicans (especially if made while traveling overseas), and so was born the idea of the apology tour, even if the self-evidently interventionist Obama was only making a rhetorical case.
Consider, for instance, Obama's intervention in the Libyan civil war. Compared to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it's small fry, but its consequences could be just as disastrous. It set a precedent for the president to authorize the use of military force himself, on behalf of the "writ of the international community," and enter a war on the side of a largely unknown group of rebels. As it turns out, the rebels in Libya range from government officials to Islamist militants in Mali and Nigeria to potential perpetrators of the 9/11 Benghazi attack.
At one of his last hearings as a sitting member of Congress, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) brought to light information that helps explain what happened in Benghazi. As the civil war had gotten underway, Col. Moammar Qaddafi had originally blamed the unrest on Al Qaeda and acid. A month later, as the U.S-backed intervention began, CNN asked whether Al Qaeda might take advantage of the situation, noting that a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks from 2008 pointed to one rebel stronghold as a source of
the foreign fighters in Libya. One of the larger rebel groups that came under the anti-Qaddafi coalition, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was itself founded by mujahedeen returning from Afghanistan, and its leader admitted Al Qaeda links just days after the U.N. resolution that set American military action in motion.
Kucinich got Lt. Colonel Andrew Wood to offer that Al Qaeda's presence was certainly more established in Libya than America's. Worse still, in the wake of the rebel victory, somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 surface-to-air missiles have gone missing. White House emails reveal that the Islamist militant group that almost immediately took responsibility for the Benghazi attack also bragged to Al Qaeda about it. The new Libyan government, meanwhile, insisted from the beginning the Benghazi attack was perpetrated by Islamist militants. And yet, as Jamie Dettmer reported at The Daily Beast, the investigation has stalled, and Libyan officials are worried about what the eventual American response might be. "They had surveillance drones monitoring that night. They will have identified some people and traced where they are now," Dettmer quotes an advisor to Libya's Congress. "They worry," Dettmer reports, "about a drone strike on targets in eastern Libya—that would be a gift to jihadists, they say."
Obama has of course made drone strikes one of the centerpieces of his foreign policy. And Mitt Romney provides essentially no alternative to more of the same. "We can't kill our way out of this mess," Mitt Romney told Obama at the foreign policy debate last week, before prescribing more killing as the solution to every problem American faces abroad. "I…feel the president was right to up the usage of that [drone] technology, and believe that we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends," the Republican nominee said just minutes later.
And so despite whoever wins Tuesday's election, the response to the murder of an American ambassador and three others may well be the sort of action that will "be a gift to jihadists." What won't be questioned is the sort of intervention—unilaterally decided by the president and then passively accepted by a pliant Congress—that dropped American diplomats into an unstable situation that no one had a handle on.
Finding out whether (or when) Obama and his spokespeople started dissembling about the Benghazi attack is important, but it's ultimately less important than confronting the mind-set that will lead to more half-baked interventions that then lead to more death and destruction of American lives.
"It is harder to recognize Congress' role in the failure to stop the drone attacks that are still killing innocent civilians and strengthening radical elements abroad," Kucinich told fellow congressmen at the Benghazi hearing. "We want to stop the attacks on embassies? Let's stop trying to overthrow governments."