Members of Congress of both parties are clamoring for former CIA Director David Petraeus to testify about the decisions and events surrounding the murder of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of this year.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask for that testimony since the CIA had an important role in Benghazi and Petraeus – to his credit – is the highest level US official to visit Libya since the disaster there.
But fascination with the general’s personal story must not divert attention from the very significant policy failures that helped produce a chaotic security situation in Libya. Petraeus was not principally responsible for those mistakes, nor for similar mistakes that continue in Syria, nor for the misleading suggestion that killing Bin Laden had dealt a fatal blow to Al Qaeda.
Congress should stay focused on the policy mistakes leading up to the Benghazi attack, the question of the commander-in-chief’s role the night of the attack, and the misleading claims afterwards that this terrorist attack was a response to an anti-Muslim video. In chronological order:
- Why did the US leave the principal responsibility for arming the anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya to countries which favored Islamist militias, so that many of the most powerful armed groups in Libya today are Islamist – and even Salafist – despite the fact that the Libyan people emphatically rejected the Islamists in the recent elections? Was this the result of the hasty and ill-conceived UN Security Council Resolution that imposed an arms embargo on all parties in Libya? Or was it a deliberate policy of “leading from behind” and outsourcing critical tasks to countries who did not share our interest in a democratic and pluralistic Libya? These are questions that fall principally within the responsibility of the secretary of State, not the director of the CIA.
- Why did the US continue with that policy failure after Qaddafi’s fall, taking a “mission accomplished” stance and leaving a democratically-elected and pro-American government largely powerless in the face of armed militias? Again, this was principally a State Department responsibility, but the Department of Defense should have pressed for a more active role as well.
- Why was security at both the Tripoli Embassy and the Benghazi Consulate so woefully inadequate, despite appeals from the country team for better security and plain evidence of danger, including attacks on diplomats? That too was principally a State Department responsibility, although the CIA did have a major presence in Benghazi (and had a rescue force that managed to come from Tripoli that night and rescue most of the Americans).
- Why did administration officials, including the president himself, mislead the American people for so long with the suggestion that the attacks were a response to an obscure video rather than a deliberate act of terrorism? Was this because of a reluctance to acknowledge that Al Qaeda was still alive even though Bin Laden was dead? Did the intelligence really support the claim that this was a “spontaneous demonstration,” and why would State Department officials rely on claims that contradicted what they knew from monitoring the attack on the Consulate as it was happening? (It is appropriate to question Petraeus about the intelligence community assessment, but nothing prevented the State Department from honestly reporting what they knew from their own sources.)
- Given the obvious lack of security in Libya and the danger to American personnel, why was nothing done to assign forces to AFRICOM so that the US could have responded more quickly to the attacks on our installations in both Benghazi and Tripoli? This failure rests largely with the Department of Defense, which could have made such provision on its own, but it is also a failure of the National Security Council decision-making process.
- Because AFRICOM had no assigned forces, it appears that the only military assets available nearby were F-16 fighters based in Italy. These aircraft might have had difficulty avoiding significant civilian casualties in a residential area or distinguishing between enemy and friendly militias. Still, shouldn’t the F-16’s at least have been deployed to Benghazi, to provide cover over the Annex and over the evacuation route, whether or not their weapons could actually be employed? It seems that the secretary of Defense, advised by Generals Dempsey and Ham, had responsibility for this decision, but he should be asked whether the president was consulted about it and if not, why not.
- In some ways, the most important question about Benghazi is whether we will make similar mistakes in the future, as the administration seems to be doing in Syria by outsourcing the arming of the Syrian opposition, resulting in a growing domination of the rebel forces by Islamist groups. And unlike Libya – where the people do appreciate the American role in helping them against Qaddafi – the people of Syria are bitter and angry about the emptiness of American rhetoric.
These are the questions for which Congress should be demanding answers. Instead of indulging in gossip, the country’s focus should be on issues of genuine national importance and on officials, including the president, who have the main responsibility for what went wrong and continues to go wrong, not only in Libya but even more dangerously in Syria.