An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012.(.Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
The White House knew—or should have known—an avowed Libyan Jihadist group named Ansar Al-Sharia claimed responsibility for the attack in Benghazi as it was occurring. Emails released yesterday from the Embassy in Tripoli make that point obvious, and Obama’s refusal to publicly state when he saw these frantic alert messages serves only to solidify suspicions of a cover-up.
It also proved that the White House response to the Benghazi assault involved an obvious incongruity. They were willing to cite in the earliest hours that an obscure youtube video sparked a “spontaneous” protest based on preliminary evidence from the internet. By contrast, the Obama administration didn’t think that similar open-source information merited public mention when a prime suspect—Ansar al-Sharia--announced it was involved in overrunning and burning out a U.S. Consulate.
Many in the media chalk up the bungled response to panic, while others recognize the obvious politics at work. Recent revelations have proven both of those claims true, but less discussed is why the administration sought to control and distort the narrative at the expense of their own credibility. By attempting to distort and deflect, the Obama administration merely delayed America’s inevitable reckoning that something rotten was afoot in our Libyan intervention.
Of course this all reeks of electoral calculation. This administration has lied to the American people, and it’s an outrage. But it also brings up a broader question that goes to the heart of U.S. policy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring:
Why was the White House so unwilling to state the obvious on Benghazi?
The answer is all about Obama’s narrative heading into reelection. The Benghazi debacle makes it appear Libya is heading for darker times, it proves that the global Jihad marches on after Bin Laden’s death, and Libya could even become a safehaven for terrorists to plot attacks around the world.
And all this for an administration that views foreign policy as its strongest asset.
In fact, as we headed into the thick of election season, the Obama administration was poised to hold Libya up as the poster-child for humanitarian intervention. Obama had shaken off the legacy of Bill Clinton’s disastrous Somalia mission, and seemingly proven that drones alone can liberate an Arab world just clamoring for democracy, human rights, and rule of law.
Then our U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other brave Americans serving their country were murdered by the very people they had risked their lives to liberate. Americans now see threats on the horizon for which this administration is ill-prepared.
So what does Benghazi tell us about the real state of Libya?
The militias control everything. The central government doesn’t have an effective police force or military, and there are Salafists and Jihadists angling for power in the Eastern province of Barqa who entirely reject the democratic process. Many of them also despise America and the West, despite our saving them from annihilation.
Libya as it exists on a map is a fiction. It is really three separate states that were pulled together by a vicious strongman in Qaddafi who was bizarre even by maniacal dictator standards. He allowed no civil society to form, and even kept most of the military intentionally weak.
The eastern part of Libya has most of the oil and the Jihadist elements. Those Jihadists are currently mired in an internal feud over whether to harness the democratic process for short-term gain, or just reject it entirely. Either way, they’ve been flying the black flag of Jihad as their banner since the beginning of the conflict with a “Day of Rage” on February 17, 2011. That’s not going to change.
Perhaps the Jihadists will be sidelined, or marginalized by the tribal leaders who hope to create a functional Libyan state with some federalism and revenue sharing from the oil wells along the coast. Even if that happens—and it’s a big if—it would not prevent eastern Libya from becoming a hotbed of Jihadist recruitment, training, and plotting.
In fact, for the past ten years, cities like Derna and Benghazi have already been prime Jihadi real estate, sending fighters and suicide bombers to Afghanistan and Iraq. When you couple that with indigenous Libyan extremist groups fighting to overthrow Qaddafi for decades, it becomes clear that there will be proponents of Jihad operating in Libya for the foreseeable future. Removing Qaddafi may have been a humanitarian victory, but it took the boot off the neck of those in Libya who would also wage war against the West.
Add to that the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the region, sprinkle in a vast ocean of weapons from Qaddafi’s former depots washing across the black markets in North Africa, and toss in some foreign fighters from other Arab states, and you have a growing vortex of Jihadist activity.
So while we may have saved the people of Benghazi from Qaddafi, there appears little America can do to prevent Libya from becoming a launchpad for terrorism. While the topography is very different, Barqa could one day turn into something akin to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan— the central government can’t control it, and Salafists operate with relative impunity.
Considerably worse scenarios for Libya are certainly possible, as are more positive ones. But we have already seen the Libyan terrorists manage one horrific strike against America. If Jihadists gain enough freedom to operate, we can expect more attacks to come from the country that owes its freedom to President Obama’s decision to intervene. The moral calculus of that choice was complicated; the security effects on America and its allies all seem to point in one direction.