On Sept. 11, 2012, the election year and 9/11 intersected, with disastrous results at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and embarrassing results for the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the Obama administration in Washington, D.C.
Military defeats will occur, even when you are prepared. In the 24/7 media world, gaffes and embarrassment are inevitable. However, the fact that the U.S. government was clearly surprised by last week's attacks -- on 9/11 in an election year -- and was not prepared to respond with clarity and confidence, is inexcusable. It indicates a profound strategic blindness compounded by an indefensible ignorance of American history.
Post-combat analysis and witness reports of the attack in Benghazi, which led to the murder of U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, have produced solid evidence that 100 or more (possibly 400) al-Qaida-aligned militiamen conducted the assault. They attacked in two waves and had heavy infantry weapon support -- mortars, for sure.
Though the Obama administration initially insisted the assault began as a protest against an anti-Muslim Internet video, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland began backing away from the video-did-it line on Sept. 13. Nuland said the State Department was "very cautious about drawing conclusions" regarding the perpetrators' motivations and links until the U.S. and Libya had conducted a joint investigation.
On Sept. 16, however, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice continued to flog the video-did-it narrative. That was the same day Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megari, announced that he had no doubts the Benghazi militia had predetermined the date of the attack.
Other Libyans have claimed they warned U.S. government personnel that armed extremists had plans for 9/11. Well, of course. Every graduate of basic training knows that organizing 100 militiamen and their support weapons and then moving them into assault positions does not happen spontaneously. Their commanders needed time to pick the target, gather intelligence, plan the attack and then make sure the fighters had rifle ammo.
Besides, a militia spokesman claimed on Sept. 12 that Christopher's slaying was revenge for the Predator drone remote-controlled assassination of al-Qaida deputy commander Abu Yahya al-Libi. A Predator killed al-Libi in June.
President Barack Obama incessantly touts his successful Predator strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. An al-Qaida militant might find Obama's Internet video touts inflammatory.
The Benghazi attack wasn't an act of sudden rage, an escalating protest kindled by a sacrilegious video. It was a calculated act of war conducted on a date, 9/11, with political significance and symbolic power.
Moreover, this is a presidential election year. U.S. elections offer a savvy enemy the opportunity to damage and perhaps alter U.S. policies.
This is not a new insight. In 1864, the Confederates tried to convince Union voters that the Civil War was unwinnable. The Rebs failed, but in the next century the North Vietnamese didn't.
North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap launched his 1968 offensive during Vietnam's "Tet" New Year celebrations, but his target was the U.S. election. If the shock of Tet convinced enough Americans that the war was unwinnable, the political repercussions would affect the election and U.S. policy. In a 1989 interview, Giap said his most important fight in 1968 was for American public opinion. Then he added: "Military power is not the decisive factor in war. ... Human beings are the decisive factor."
Human beings remain the decisive factor in the Global War on Terror. Obama tried to scotch the GWOT, preferring "overseas contingency operation," but last week's events demonstrate the struggle continues, with cruel violence and harsh consequences, no matter its name, no matter how hard a president tries to deny it or ignore it.
For militant Islamists, Sept. 11, 2012, was a low-level, YouTube-era Tet designed to bloody America and weaken U.S. support for Libya, Egypt and Tunisia's moderate Islamist governments. Remember that: militant versus moderate. The attacks also demonstrated how swiftly terrorists can disrupt these fragile democracies.
Public opinion now matters in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt -- so it, too, is a target.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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