There were two extraordinary disclosures in Thursday’s testimony of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
One is that there was no communication between them and Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the seven hours of Sept. 11, 2012, when Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were attacked and murdered in Benghazi.
This is a vivid contrast with those photos we’ve seen of the president and his leading advisers watching the video of the attack on Osama bin Laden.
At a 5 p.m. meeting, when it was first known that Stevens was under attack, Obama did issue Panetta and Dempsey a directive to do whatever they could to protect him. And then left the matter, in Panetta’s words, “up to us.”
After the meeting, according to White House records, Obama did have a one-hour phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a phone call The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol has called “non-urgent, politically useful.”
But he apparently wasn’t curious about what was happening in Benghazi. He wasn’t too concerned either the next morning, when after the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in 33 years he jetted off on a four-hour ride to a campaign event in Las Vegas. I don’t think you have to be a Republican partisan to consider that unseemly.
Obama’s odd response to the Benghazi attack and the efforts, surely choreographed by his White House, to attribute it to a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video suggest that his first priority was winning re-election — and that Benghazi was an irritant that must not be allowed to stand in the way.
The other disclosure in the testimony of Panetta and Dempsey was that they, Secretary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus all backed aid to the Syrian rebels and that the president decided against it.
Of course, that was his decision to make under the Constitution. And there are reasonable arguments against involvement. We could end up aiding the wrong rebels. We could get sucked into a quagmire.
We have seen in chaotic Libya and in the fighting in neighboring Mali and the hostage-taking in Algeria negative developments that have flowed from our “leading from behind” support of those seeking to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
But there are also arguments for aiding the Syrian rebels if, as Obama stated months ago, you want to see the regime of Bashir Assad ousted from power in a country far more strategically located than Libya. And if you want to reduce the bloodshed going on now for more than a year.
Evidently those arguments weren’t persuasive to Obama. On Syria, he chose to lead from very far behind.
“This now looks increasingly like a historic mistake,” writes Walter Russell Mead in his invaluable American Interest blog, and not just because it helps the rebels aligned with Islamist terrorist groups.
“Iran seems much less worried about what this administration might do to it,” Mead writes. “The mullahs seem to believe that faced with a tough decision, the White House blinked.” And, he adds, “both the Israelis and the Sunni Arab states have smelled the same weakness.”
The two disclosures last Thursday came at a time when other presidential actions sent a similar message. One was the withdrawal of one of the two aircraft carriers scheduled to patrol the Persian Gulf.
The other was the nomination to be secretary of defense of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a longtime opponent of not only military action but also economic sanctions against Iran.
The Hagel nomination was baffling. Most incoming secretaries of defense in the last 40 years have had extensive experience in the Pentagon, at the White House or on the congressional armed services committees.
Hagel has none of these. And, as he admitted at the end of a confirmation hearing, when he misstated administration policy, “There are a lot of things I don’t know about.”
“A decade of war is ending,” Barack Obama declared in his second inaugural. His response to Benghazi, his decision on Syria and his nomination of Hagel suggest he thinks he can draw down our forces and avoid military conflict.
But weakness is provocative and retreat invites attack. Threats abound — Iran, North Korea, China versus Japan. Obama’s moves may end up making war more likely, not less.