The abandonment of the State Department-CIA mission in Benghazi that came under attack on September 11, 2012 marked the failure of the Obama administration’s foreign policy toward the Muslim world. That American generals and admirals raised no protest to the decision not to go to the American contingent’s defense dishonored our military and undercut its sense of duty, responsibility, and self-respect. The discredit brought upon the United States by foolish, dishonest foreign policies is dangerous and hard enough to live down. But history teaches that militaries whose moral qualities have been undermined court disaster, and that restoring those qualities is very hard.
Public discourse has focused on whether the destruction of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was spontaneous or a planned terrorist attack, as well as on why the mission had not been provided with adequate security. But these questions are important chiefly from the standpoint of domestic politics.
Of greater importance to our nation is that the so-called consulate annex was destroyed by a regular, conventional military assault and finished off by very accurate mortar fire. This annex, a CIA outpost, seems to have been facilitating the transfer of weapons to Syrian rebel factions—something that the Obama administration was doing quietly while publicly debating whether to do it— as well as engaging in other covert activities in the region. More likely than not, this is how it could become the target of a regular military attack. This may also explain why a CIA team swept the ruins of the annex for two weeks before FBI investigators were allowed to enter it.
In short: regardless of who, precisely, ran the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, it was a blow aimed at U.S. policy. Moreover, since the Obama administration has apparently done nothing during the past 20 months to identify those who fired the mortars, it is reasonable to infer that detouring attention from that fight’s stakes and protagonists shaped its actions on the night of the attack—regardless of, or at least in addition to, any political considerations there may have been.
While we do not know the reasons why the administration chose to leave the Americans to die, we can be absolutely sure that its claim that the military did not have enough time to come to the rescue is insincere. Why? Because at the time, no one knew or could know how long the Americans calling for help could hold out. Had the mortar crew performed as so many Arab armies have, the fight at the annex might have gone on for days. There was not—as there never can be—any assurance of a rescue attempt’s success. Most assuredly, though, what the Obama administration did was order the military not even to try. Nor even to send fighter jets that could have made low-level sonic booms over the scene.
Excuses aside, the possible reasons for the inaction are all distasteful. First, launching an overt military operation to defend a covert activity would have broken that activity’s secrecy. This isn’t apt because the attack itself showed that the covert action was no secret to America’s enemies, only to Americans. If this was the administration’s thinking, it sacrificed American lives and then lied about it to protect only its failed policy. Second, having reason to believe that the attackers were aided by, or even accompanied by, Russian agents trying to shut down the arms flow to Syria, the administration might not have wanted to risk hurting any of them and possibly provoking confrontation with Moscow. But if this was the administration’s thinking, its valuing relations with an adversary ahead of our own citizens’ lives can only earn that adversary’s contempt. Third, aiding the besieged annex with air power might have hurt Libyan civilians nearby. As with the previous possibility, this would mean U.S. officials valued over American lives the safety of foreigners who place themselves near an attack on Americans.
We may hope that the discredit that the Obama administration brought on America will pass away with that administration. But because the military is a continuing institution, we can have no such confidence with regard to the discredit that our military brought on itself.
On that fateful night, senior U.S. military officials were duty-bound to obey orders from the President through the Secretary of Defense. By standing down, they obeyed that duty. But by failing to protest publicly, even to resign, they betrayed another duty. All knew in their bones, from the first day they entered military life, that rescuing those they are bound to protect is the duty and honor that holds all militaries together, and that nothing so destroys a military force as superior officers who, out of self-interest, leave subordinates to their fate.
All Americans, regardless of political preferences, have reason to dread the spread among our armed forces of sentiments such as “They’re in it for themselves, why should I stick my neck out?” There is no way of knowing when or how such sentiments will manifest themselves. But history teaches that, in crucial military situations, they are the prime agents of otherwise unexplained collapse.