Oh What a Tangled Web

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Supporters of President Obama have dubbed those who question administration statements about Libya as either partisans or conspiracy theorists, on the premise that the administration had no reason to dissimulate. But in fact, it had plenty of political reasons not to be candid, as the following questions make clear.

Why was the administration hesitant to beef up security at the vulnerable Benghazi consulate ahead of time, or to send in military assistance during the seven-hour attack on the consulate and the CIA annex, or at least to be candid after the attack?

The Obama reelection campaign had established a catchy narrative about foreign policy. “Leading from behind” had rid the world of Qaddafi without the loss of American lives, and had prepped Libya for the arrival of the Arab Spring, which would lead to a postbellum reform government. Barack Obama had killed Osama bin Laden and scattered al Qaeda, dispelling slurs that he was somehow soft on Islamic terrorism. His reset diplomacy had brought a cool professional approach of quiet competency to foreign policy, consistent with a new lower-profile American posture abroad.

The idea of a preplanned hit by al-Qaeda affiliates on a vulnerable and unprepared American diplomatic post had the potential to shatter that narrative right before the election. Susan Rice summed up best the administration’s positive take on the supposedly spontaneous riot:

This is a turbulent time. It’s a time of dramatic change. It’s a change that the United States has backed because we understand that when democracy takes root, when human rights and people’s freedom of expression can be manifested, it may lead to turbulence in the short term, but over the long term, that is in the interest of the United States. The mobs we’ve seen on the outside of these embassies are a small minority. They’re the ones who have largely lost in these emerging democratic processes, and just as the people of these countries are not going to allow their lives to be hijacked by a dictator, they’re not going to allow an extremist mob to hijack their future and their freedom. And we’re going to continue to stand with the vast majority of the populations in these countries.

Had we, as our people on the ground had requested, beefed up security at the annex with Marines, attention at some point might have been focused on the chaotic situation in Libya and the vulnerability of the very Americans who supposedly had done so much to free Libyans from Qaddafi. Ambassador Chris Stevens was the sort of new diplomat — low-key, cool, a career professional, fluent in the local language and customs, able to blend in with the locals — that typified the new soft-power approach. He was hardly the sort of ambassador who would need, or want to be associated with, a sandbagged, barbed-wired, Marine-laden traditional compound.

Likewise, sending in air support to the beleaguered defenders — in the manner that Bill Clinton allowed the Blackhawks to strafe whatever was necessary to save a trapped American outpost in Mogadishu — would have reminded Americans that once more we were fighting al Qaeda or its affiliates — all very much alive after the death of bin Laden. It would also have had the potential to result in a nasty high-profile firefight in a supposedly friendly reforming country on the eve of the US election — a sort of mini-version of Mogadishu or the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon. This was at the very time the president on the campaign trail was telling the country that we were leaving wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not starting one in Libya.

Second, the alternative explanation — blaming a crass right-wing anti-Islamic filmmaker and the notoriously Islamophobic Florida pastor Terry Jones — was just too attractive an antithesis between a few bigoted Neanderthals and the majority of reform-minded liberal Americans. Blasting reckless hate speech, arresting the filmmaker for his insensitivity on the pretext of a minor parole violation, and delivering Cairo-speech-like reassurances about ruffled Muslim feelings would all showcase the president’s natural forte on the global stage: ecumenical reaching out, zero tolerance for bigotry, and singular sensitivity to wounded Muslim feelings.

Obama simply could not resist that, even though on September 12, the day after the attack, he let slip in an interview with 60 Minutes (of which this segment was not aired till weeks later) that he suspected it might have been a preplanned terrorist hit. After all, the notion that on 9/11 hundreds of people would show up at an obscure American consulate in a secondary Libyan city in order to protest a two-month-old video produced by an obscure American, and then suddenly get out of hand and use heavy weaponry such as machine guns and mortars to attack Americans, was as preposterous as it was apparently still preferable to the inconvenient truth.

Why did we even have a consulate — or a CIA annex — in Benghazi in the first place?

Who really knows? Most nations and non-governmental organizations had long ago pulled their personnel out of their main stations in Tripoli, let alone Benghazi. But the truth again probably will be inconvenient to a president who ran in 2008 on a new transparency in foreign policy, an end to the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, a suspicion of past CIA behaviors both abroad and at Guantanamo, and a blanket dislike of private “contractors,” veritable merchants of death who profit from the mayhem of war. Given the administration’s desire to help the opposition to Bashar Assad in Syria, given our newfound compatibility with Turkey, now an archenemy of a once “no problems” and “reformist” Syria, and given the vast and mostly unaccounted-for Qaddafi weapons arsenal, it might seem logical to have a program that would “secure” these dangerous weapons. And why not at the same time repackage them, through hired non-governmental contractors, as anonymous donations to the Syrian opposition — perhaps with the help of Turkish transit?

But such a policy, if disclosed, was fraught with danger in general and for the reformist Obama in particular. With a Nobel Peace Prize laureate as president, Americans now do not use consulates in obscure places as fronts for CIA arms-smuggling operations. We do not send weapons covertly to groups whose actual affiliations and ideologies we are not yet certain are legitimate or in US interests. We do not employ Blackwater-like private mercenaries under cover to offer plausible deniability. We do not use our ambassadors to facilitate covert arms transfers and smuggling. And we certainly do not expose US personnel to unacceptable risks abroad for the sake of non-transparent objectives of both dubious utility and questionable morality.

How is the Benghazi matter connected to David Petraeus and the question of female fraternization with top officers and officials?

In many ways. First, pre-election, the US media had decided that Libya was taboo. Those who dissented were immediately blasted as politicizing a national tragedy or, in Romney’s case, using national disaster as a cheap campaign ploy. The prurient sexual matter inadvertently directed media attention to the CIA director — who also happens to be the most renowned American soldier since Matthew Ridgway — and by extension to Benghazi. The administration’s narrative about the Petraeus resignation, like its Benghazi narrative, simply asks the American people to believe something that they cannot suppose to be true.

Most do accept the FBI Keystone Cops story that Jill Kelley’s worry over anonymous angry e-mails prompted her call to a friendly agent, who set in motion a full-scale FBI investigation, which, in turn, discovered secret e-mails between Petraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell, which, in a further turn, made it clear, inter alia, that the two were having a romantic affair.

Sometime in late summer, the FBI passed on to Justice Department officials its discovery of the Petraeus affair, suggesting, among other things, that Broadwell was in possession of, or at least knew about, classified information. We are supposed to believe that the Justice Department noted that information, but when it finally passed it on to Attorney General Holder in late summer, he chose not to tell the president of the findings. Indeed, Obama supposedly did not learn about Petraeus until the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, asked Petraeus to resign three days after the election, on a Friday afternoon, the usual time for press releases concerning inconvenient developments.

More important, Petraeus himself had supposedly gone on record shortly after the 9/11 attacks as saying that the violence grew out of a spontaneous demonstration gone awry, rather than being a preplanned terrorist hit using mortars and machine guns. If Petraeus did say that, it was somewhat surprising — given that his own CIA personnel on the ground in Libya had informed him otherwise. Petraeus’s purported initial analysis likewise was not supported by live-feed videos that showed gunmen, not demonstrators, attacking Americans, and it was also at odds with the monitoring of jihadist websites that were already boasting of a successful hit on Americans — but it was entirely consistent with what administration officials like Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, James Clapper, and Barack Obama were insisting upon.

So the natural question arises: Why would David Petraeus, the seasoned veteran who had fought insurgency and terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, offer a blurred analysis that differed from what his common sense, reports from his own subordinates, live video feeds, and jihadist braggadocio all seemed to confirm? More curious still, after his resignation, Petraeus testified to a congressional committee that he had in fact confirmed a terrorist attack all along, only to see his agency’s accurate preliminary analysis modified by others — in the sense of sanitized White House talking points that made no mention of a preplanned al-Qaeda attack. That is quite a tangled web, when the US government can neither protect its personnel nor explain why it cannot.

And another question arises: If, for much of the summer and early autumn, the FBI, and perhaps even the Justice Department and the White House, had the explosive knowledge about Petraeus’s private life, why was that apparently not a matter of particular concern? Did it become so only when his intelligence analyses could no longer be synchronized with pre-election talking points, and when rumors about his personal life started to spread outside the administration?

So why did Petraeus resign, and why right after the election?

No one but Petraeus knows — and in about two weeks probably no one will care. He may have felt that some in the White House were massaging his analyses, perhaps emboldened by knowledge of his private affairs, and he may therefore have thought that his tenure at the CIA was fatally compromised, leading him to resign, but only after the election, in a manner that should not appear political. Or, then again and more ominously, the White House may have felt that after the election, Petraeus’s personal problems, and possible intelligence dissents, had become liabilities and thus he should be forced to resign. We still do not know whether Petraeus willingly resigned in order to ensure that his analyses could not be tainted by political massaging, or whether he desperately wished to stay at the CIA, but was booted out as soon as Barack Obama was safely reelected, when any subsequent testimony that might contradict what was earlier released would fortunately only muddy the waters.

Where does all this lead?

I think nowhere. Unlike in the cases of Watergate and Iran-Contra, there is no investigative press, given the media’s worry about endangering the second-term agenda of a progressive president. There is no special prosecutor salivating after a government official, as there was with Scooter Libby. “The fog of war” and accusations of “Conspiracy theory!” should be enough to bury the scandal and discredit those who seek the truth. Modifying a CIA analysis for political purposes is probably no crime. Quid pro quos are simply the polite, everyday — and legal — Washington version of blackmail. In the end, the only casualties in this sordid tale were the sterling career of David Petraeus — and four murdered Americans whose deaths were preventable.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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