Cliff May

Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can put politics aside and acknowledge a hard fact: On September 11, 2012, America was defeated by al-Qaeda in the Battle of Benghazi.

About this battle many questions remain. The media and Congress have a responsibility to get answers — not only because we should know the truth, not only to assign blame, but, more important, to learn from failure. At the least, we should try to understand what lessons our enemies have learned — because they will apply those lessons in the future.

It is possible to lose many battles and still win a war. It is possible to win many battles and still lose a war. What is perilous is to misunderstand your enemies and underestimate the threats they pose. This was the case prior to September 11, 2001, as Condoleezza Rice candidly admitted to the 9/11 Commission in 2004. “The terrorists were at war with us,” she said, “but we were not yet at war with them.”

On September 11, 2012, the situation was similar. Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation and CNN’s national-security analyst, had been saying for months that al-Qaeda was “defeated,” a thesis endorsed by, among others, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lynch III (retired), a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University. President Obama made this claim a central theme of his reelection campaign. Post-Benghazi, in his final stump speech in Des Moines, he reassured voters that “the war in Iraq has ended, the war in Afghanistan is ending. Osama bin Laden is dead!”

But, in Afghanistan, we have not broken the Taliban; in Iraq, al-Qaeda has been increasing the tempo of its suicide attacks; in Syria, al-Qaeda is playing an increasingly significant role in the civil war; in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is far from beaten; in Mali, al-Qaeda has taken control of vast territories; in Iran, a regime whose ideology is no less anti-American than al-Qaeda’s continues to develop nuclear weapons despite tightening sanctions.

According to the New York Times, in the months leading up to the “attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration received intelligence reports that Islamic extremist groups were operating training camps in the mountains near Benghazi and that some of the fighters were ‘Al-Qaeda leaning.’”

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.