Opinion: Columnists

The real Benghazi scandal was Obama's drive-by war in Libya

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Opinion,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,Barack Obama,Benghazi,Libya,Foreign Policy

There is a real Benghazi scandal and it's this: President Obama illegally invaded Libya, overthrew Moammar Gadhafi, and then--due to politics--left a power vacuum that terrorists filled, turning Libya into a hotbed of jihadist groups. The 2012 attack that killed four Americans was a consequence of the disorder and violence the administration left in the wake of its drive-by war.

The useful lesson from Benghazi isn't about a White House lying (shocking!), but about the inherent messiness of regime change and the impossibility of a quick, clean war.

'How can I cabin our commitment?'

This scandal doesn't begin in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. It begins in Brazil on March 19, 2011. Obama used an audio address from Brazil to announce he was sending the U.S. military into Libya's civil war. He never asked Congress for permission. He didn't even announce it from the Oval Office. He just took us to war as if it wasn't a big deal -- because he wanted it to be a small deal.

Obama wanted an American war, but he wanted a mini-war. Writer Michael Lewis, who spoke with Obama as he made his decision, paraphrased the message Obama gave to our NATO allies: “We'll do most of the actual bombing because only we can do it quickly, but you have to clean up the mess afterward.”

Lewis quoted Obama as telling him: “What I didn’t want, is a month later a call from our allies saying, ‘It’s not working—you need to do more.’ So the question is: How can I cabin our commitment in a way that is useful?”

There would be no occupation and no boots on the ground, Obama insisted. The Bush administration had dragged the U.S. into a decade-long occupation of Iraq because if “you break it, you buy it.” Obama wanted to break Gadhafi and then walk out of the store.

Americans had little appetite for a third war in the Muslim world. Obama presumably knew that, which is why he flouted the Constitution and skirted Congressional approval. (Congress was probably grateful for this.)

But to gain even slight support from the public – or, more likely, grudging tolerance – Obama had to promise a “cabin[ed] commitment.”

Obama’s drive-by strategy in Libya was a disaster—morally and strategically.

CNN reported "Libya's government has been unable to impose its authority over a myriad of militia groups that have grown in power and influence since the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi."

Libya's latest prime minister was driven into hiding by violent threats. Much of the country is utterly ungoverned and, as the Daily Beast's national security writer Eli Lake put it, “its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers."

Liberated from the murderous Gadhafi, Libya became "a jihadist melting pot,” in the words of one national security official Lake spoke to.

The chaos has spread. Libya's borders with Tunisia and Algeria have seen a huge uptick in smuggled gasoline, weapons, and drugs. The New York Times reported in early 2013 that “weapons looted from the colonel's stockpiles could find their way to militants in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Four different terrorist groups have shown their faces in Libya since Gadhafi was deposed, Lake reported: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Mulathameen Brigade, and Ansar al-Sharia.

Which brings the story back to Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia played a role in the deadly 2012 raid of the U.S. diplomatic facility there. Obama's insistence on "no boots on the ground" may have left the American diplomats and intelligence operators less protected than they needed to be.

Also, the violence arose from the chaos NATO left behind, as shown by early drafts of public talking points drafted for Ambassador Susan Rice.

These talking points discussed "the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa'ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya.” One point read "Since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants."

Someone in the administration — perhaps aware of how these points indicted the White House's drive-by approach to Libya — spiked these talking points. Also deleted: "The wide availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya almost certainly contribute to the lethality of the attacks."

War is messy. Obama tried to make war in Libya clean. Benghazi is a blood stain on that war — one of many.

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.
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