The ghosts of Benghazi

WASHINGTON — We may never know exactly what happened in Benghazi the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that our response was short of optimum.

Even today, there are far more questions than answers. Could Stevens have been saved? Was Washington doing all in its drone-loving power to intervene? And, finally, as now-retired Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fired back to congressional questioners during her recent appearance on Capitol Hill: What difference does it make?

Those words, uttered impatiently with just a soupcon of anger, came in response to Sen. Ron Johnson’s question about what the administration knew and when. Specifically, he asked why the administration sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice around to Sunday talk shows with talking points that we now know were clearly incorrect.

Recall that Rice repeated the operative narrative that the attacks in Benghazi were caused by a spontaneous protest gone awry about an anti-Muhammad video. While there was such a protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, nothing of the sort happened in Benghazi. The attacks — two of them six hours apart — were a premeditated assault, now widely referred to as a “terrorist attack by an al-Qaida affiliate,” which may or may not be confirmable. Isn’t every wannabe terrorist part of an al-Qaida affiliate these days?

To the point, was the White House’s response deliberately misleading? Or, was Rice merely regurgitating what she had been told, using the best-available information?

Clinton’s huffy response during testimony that was otherwise measured and cool was likely intended to put a lid on this can of worms:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

Well, it all makes quite a bit of difference, though inarguably less now than it might have just weeks before the November election. Clinton’s response was so loaded with explosive potential, it’s a mystery why no one on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attempted to provide an answer. Apparently, Johnson and his Republican colleagues were so hornswoggled by Clinton’s irritation that no one wanted to volunteer.

Most important, obviously, is the possibility that those four American lives might have been saved. More prosaically, it is very possible that President Obama’s re-election might not have been assured had possible incompetence at the highest levels been highlighted sooner rather than … now.

Americans got a clearer picture of what transpired last Sept. 11 during testimony Thursday by retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta said he personally delivered the news to Obama that the consulate was under attack during a 30-minute briefing that also included Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The president said, “Do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there,” and that was that. He and Panetta didn’t speak again that night — and neither Dempsey nor Panetta spoke to Clinton at all.

Under questioning by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Panetta added that the president didn’t ask about military options or deploying assets. “He just left that up to us,” said Panetta.

As chief executive, Obama may have felt he delegated appropriately. Let the military handle it. But he is also the commander in chief. When our ambassador is being attacked, our country is being attacked. Should he have done more? Might he have made a call to Stevens or someone else on the ground? Obama didn’t hesitate to call Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke two days after she was attacked on-air by radio host Rush Limbaugh. As Fluke reported, the president “wanted to make sure that I was OK.”

Two days after would have been too late for Stevens, of course, but one is a real-war theater and the other is merely political. To each his own arena.

To Clinton’s query — conceding the unfair advantage of Monday morning quarterbacking — it is just and necessary to fill in the holes left gaping in Benghazi. Ultimately, the real truth may be, as one current ambassador put it to me, “Bad things happen in bad places.”

Does it make any difference how or why four Americans were murdered in Libya? My guess is Ambassador Stevens would say that it does.

Correction: For Kathleen Parker’s column for publication Feb. 6, the organizers of the U.S. visit by a group of Burmese women misidentified to Kathleen one of the visitors. The actual visitor was Khin Lay, who made the trip after Hla Hla Yee decided not to come. Biographical information provided by the organizers was about Hla Hla Yee, not Khin Lay.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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