Peggy Noonan: The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi
Did the Obama administration’s politically expedient story cost American lives?
By PEGGY NOONAN May 10, 2013, WSJ
The Benghazi story until now has been a jumble of factoids that didn’t quite cohere, didn’t produce a story that people could absorb and hold in their minds. This week that changed. Three State Department officials testifying under oath to a House committee changed it, by adding information that gave form to a growing picture. Gregory Hicks, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom were authoritative and credible. You knew you were hearing the truth as they saw and experienced it. Not one of them seemed political. You had no sense of how they voted. They were professionals. They’d seen a bad thing. They came forward to tell the story. They put the lie to the idea that all questioning of Obama administration actions in Benghazi are partisan and low.
What happened in Benghazi last Sept. 11 and 12 was terrible in every way. The genesis of the scandal? It looks to me like this:
The Obama White House sees every event as a political event. Really, every event, even an attack on a consulate and the killing of an ambassador.
Because of that, it could not tolerate the idea that the armed assault on the Benghazi consulate was a premeditated act of Islamist terrorism. That would carry a whole world of unhappy political implications, and demand certain actions. And the American presidential election was only eight weeks away. They wanted this problem to go away, or at least to bleed the meaning from it.
Gregory Hicks, a State Department foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission/charge d’affairs in Libya, during Wednesday’s congressional hearing on Benghazi.
Because the White House could not tolerate the idea of Benghazi as a planned and deliberate terrorist assault, it had to be made into something else. So they said it was a spontaneous street demonstration over an anti-Muhammad YouTube video made by a nutty California con man. After all, that had happened earlier in the day, in Cairo. It sounded plausible. And maybe they believed it at first. Maybe they wanted to believe it. But the message was out: Provocative video plus primitive street Arabs equals sparky explosion. Not our fault. Blame the producer! Who was promptly jailed.
If what happened in Benghazi was not a planned and prolonged terrorist assault, if it was merely a street demonstration gone bad, the administration could not take military action to protect Americans there. You take military action in response to a planned and coordinated attack by armed combatants. You don’t if it’s an essentially meaningless street demonstration that came and went.
Why couldn’t the administration tolerate the idea that Benghazi was a planned terrorist event? Because they didn’t want this attack dominating the headline with an election coming. It would open the administration to criticism of its intervention in Libya. President Obama had supported overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi and put U.S. force behind the Libyan rebels. Now Libyans were killing our diplomats. Was our policy wrong? More importantly, the administration’s efforts against al Qaeda would suddenly come under scrutiny and questioning. The president, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, had taken to suggesting al Qaeda was over. Al Qaeda was done. But if an al Qaeda offshoot in Libya was killing our diplomats, the age of terrorism was not over.
The Obama White House didn’t want any story that might harm, get in the way of or lessen the extent of the president’s coming victory. The White House probably anticipated that Mitt Romney would soon attempt to make points with Benghazi. And indeed he did pounce, too quickly, the very next morning, giving a statement that was at once aggressive and forgettable, as was his wont.
The president’s Republican challenger was looking for gain and didn’t find it. But here’s the thing. More is expected from the president than mere politics. That’s why we tend to re-elect them. A sitting president is supposed to be bigger, weightier, more serious than his rival.
This week’s testimony from Messrs. Hicks, Thompson and Nordstrom was clarifying, to say the least.
Mr. Hicks, deputy chief of mission at the time of the attack, said the YouTube video was never an event in Libya, and no one in Benghazi or Tripoli saw what was happening as a spontaneous street protest. Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, sent an email on Sept. 12 saying: “The group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” Mr. Hicks himself said he spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 2 a.m. Benghazi time the day after the attack and told her it was a planned attack, not a street protest.
Still, the administration stuck to its story and sent out Susan Rice—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., someone with no direct connection to the event—to go on the Sunday talk shows and insist it was all about a video. They sent someone who could function as a mouther of talking points, someone who was told what to say and could be relied upon to say it. Mr. Hicks said that when he saw what Ms. Rice said his jaw dropped.
All of this is bad enough. Far worse is the implied question that hung over the House hearing, and that cries out for further investigation. That is the idea that if the administration was to play down the nature of the attack it would have to play down the response—that is, if you want something to be a nonstory you have to have a nonresponse. So you don’t launch a military rescue operation, you don’t scramble jets, and you have a rationalization—they’re too far away, they’ll never make it in time. This was probably true, but why not take the chance when American lives are at stake?
Mr. Hicks told the compelling story of his talk with the leader of a special operations team that wanted to fly to Benghazi from Tripoli to help. The team leader was told to stand down, and he was enraged. Mark Thompson wanted an emergency support team sent to the consulate and was confounded when his superiors in Washington would not agree.
Was all this incompetence? Or was it politics disguised as the fog of war? Who called these shots and made these decisions? Who decided to do nothing?
From the day of the attack until this week, the White House spin was too clever by half. In the weeks and months after the attack White House spokesmen said they were investigating the story, an internal review was under way. When the story blew open again, last week, they said it was too far in the past: “Benghazi happened a long time ago.” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, really said that.
Think of that. They can’t give answers when the story’s fresh because it just happened, they’re looking into it. Eight months later they don’t have anything to say because it all happened so long ago.
Think of how low your opinion of the American people has to be to think you can get away, forever, with that.
Will this story ever be completely told? Maybe not. But it’s not going to go away, either. It’s a prime example of the stupidity of all-politics-all-the-time. You make some bad moves for political reasons. And then you suffer politically because you made bad moves.
A version of this article appeared May 11, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi.