The slow release of solid information about the attack is politically and institutionally corrosive. Speculations and rumors magnify the corrosive effects, but the rumors are spurred by the Obama administration's troubling reluctance to answer legitimate questions still unanswered 50 days after the attack.
The administration's reluctance compounds the damaging effects of its insistence that an anti-Muslim Internet video, the product of a California crank, incited anti-American violence in Egypt and Libya. In what political opponents characterize as a guilty echo of Richard Nixon's pliable accounts of Watergate, the Obama administration's video-did-it narrative has become "non-operative" regarding Benghazi. President Barack Obama himself now claims he called the incident a terror attack on Sept. 12, but his claim relies on a very generous parsing of his Rose Garden statement. The Washington Post's media blog concluded, "... reporting that the president referred to an 'act of terrorism' (on Sept. 12) appears to overstep the factual terrain."
Obama hedged on Sept. 12. For another week, senior administration officials continued to condemn the video, leaving the public with the definite impression that the Benghazi assault was spontaneous and the video, protected by America's fundamental commitment to free expression, incited explicable anger. On Sept. 18, White House press secretary Jay Carney asserted that the video "precipitated some of the unrest in Benghazi." If the video played a role, then America was somehow at fault.
Why would the administration insinuate a video directly, and America indirectly, were to blame for Benghazi? In 2009, Obama intimated that his presidency would dramatically change Arab Muslim perceptions of America. His sympathetic political appeals to Muslims were "smart diplomacy" that would dampen militant hostility. His America no longer waged a War on Terror, but conducted an "overseas contingency operation." Though he has never equated killing Osama bin Laden with defeating al-Qaida, Obama has insistently touted that raid and his administration's aggressive Predator drone attacks on al-Qaida as evidence that he has weakened al-Qaida.
The Benghazi attack, if it proved to be a planned attack rather than a spontaneous response to a video created without Obama's approval, would call into question at a politically inconvenient moment the fundamental assumptions that guide his administration's Middle Eastern diplomacy -- in particular, the history-changing impact of his own personality and his insistence that his diplomacy is smart. A planned attack would also demonstrate that the Terrorists War on America continues, no matter what George W. Bush and Barack Obama call the conflict, and that al-Qaida remains capable of orchestrating terror attacks that have strategically deleterious effects on U.S. policy.
The video-did-it narrative gave Obama a political shield to deflect criticism of personally dear policies and achievements. It also gave the old community organizer a rhetorical cudgel to wield against intolerant, Muslim-despising bigots in America. Partisan Democrats connect those code words to bitter clingers -- Republican rubes who cling to their guns and religion while waging war on women. Obama went with, then stayed with, the video narrative because he and his campaign advisers believed it was a foreign policy shield and domestic political sword.
Truth will out. Hard facts have emerged -- facts that explain the assault far better than the video-did-it tripe. Administration sources acknowledge that the attack lasted seven hours. I did not know this when I wrote a column on Sept. 18 that questioned the now-debunked "spontaneous" narrative. I contended that everyone who made it through basic training knows that organizing several hundred fighters with support weapons "does not happen spontaneously. Their commanders needed time to ... plan the attack and then make sure the fighters had rifle ammo."
A seven-hour firefight in a city is sustained combat engagement. It indicates the attackers had plenty of ammo. I've also learned that two of our dead were former SEALs, two Americans with the will and military skill to take on several hundred militiamen. The seven hours they fought is plenty of time to dispatch reinforcements -- at the minimum an air strike. Did they request support, as one news report claims? If so, were their requests denied? Who denied them? Was military support denied because it might violate Libyan sovereignty? These are reasonable questions that demand honest answers. The president should answer them before Nov. 6.
To find out more about Austin Bay, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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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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