"We came, we saw, we killed him (Muammar Gaddafi)," were the triumphalist, if extraordinarily undiplomatic (to say the least), words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, paraphrasing Julius Caesar's boast Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I won").
What Hillary was referring to was the decisive military support which the US and its NATO allies provided to anti-Gaddafi rebels, many of them Al Qaeda-linked jihadists, who had invaded from Egypt and seized Benghazi, a restive city in eastern Libya that had long been a stronghold of Islamic militancy and radicalism. With the help of Ambassador Susan Rice, the US Representative to the UN, and Samantha Powers, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs in the National Security Council, Hillary had persuaded a reluctant President Obama to intervene militarily on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi insurgents in spite of the open opposition of then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the only Republican holdover from the George W. Bush Administration and a former CIA director.
Incredibly, the President ignored the advice of his own Defense Secretary, an experienced CIA and National Security veteran from the Cold War era, who had argued publicly against any military intervention in Libya as not being in the long-term US security interest, especially since the Libyan strongman had given up his nuclear-weapon aspirations and was now aiding significantly in the US campaign against Al Qaeda. Perhaps stung by this rebuke, on July 1, 2011 Secretary Gates tendered his previously-announced resignation and even refused the offer to become the first Director of National Intelligence (DNI). It is also worth remembering that in 2005 President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had praised Col. Gaddafi as a partner in the "war on terror" because he had arrested or "rendered" on US behalf many al-Qaeda operatives.
In a sort of "blowback" unintended consequence, the Libyan episode has now come back to haunt the Obama Administration in the wake of the September 11 jihadist raid against the US consulate in Benghazi which led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his American colleagues. Not only has President Obama not included at all the "liberation of Libya" among his oft-recited overseas achievements, but his Republican opponents now seem determined to exploit the so-called "Benghazi-gate" scandal to discredit the President's foreign-policy record and blame his Administration for the rising anarchy and violence across the Middle East.
And this presents a very serious problem for a chief executive who ever since the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010 has focused far more on foreign affairs than on his domestic agenda, and for whom foreign policy is supposed to be his strongest point.
Luckily for Obama, in the second presidential debate Mitt Romney engaged in a foolish semantic wrangle over what the President said and when exactly he said it, instead of concentrating on the question of why the State Department denied the extra security measures which Ambassador Stevens had asked for prior to the raid. This still unexplained denial becomes all the more shocking when one reads media reports that the US consulate in Benghazi has doubled as a CIA station, inside which a cache of British weapons had been stored that were subsequently looted by the attacking militants. Then Romney compounded his inexplicable mistake by failing to raise this entire troubling issue during the third presidential debate which was devoted to foreign-policy matters. This omission no doubt contributed to the wide viewer perception that Romney lost that third debate, which may slow down or even reverse his current momentum in the polls.
But Obama's luck may not last long. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has been holding hearings on "Benghazi-gate" that will most likely continue through Election Day, the results of which the House Republicans will make sure are made widely known to voters. These hearings are pursuing the GOP election campaign's currently main line of attack that a cover-up has been organized at the very top to conceal the Obama Administration's embarrassment over such a brazen assault against American interests in a country that the US ostensibly helped liberate in an innovative, Obama-esque way--that is, without putting any boots on the ground like the previous president had done in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A year after triumphantly declaring, "All of us are inspired by what is happening in Libya," and praising the Libyan people for "taking back their country," Hillary Clinton is now dejectedly asking, "How can this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" In a mea culpa, she has now taken "responsibility" for the Benghazi fiasco, proclaiming that the "Buck stops here," because it is the State Department that is officially in charge of diplomatic security. But, sitting in a non-elective office, she knows better. Ultimately, as President Harry Truman meant it when he put the famous sign on his Oval Office desk, the "buck stops" nowhere else but at the White House.
That is why Republicans are actually aiming for Obama when pressing questions like who exactly denied Ambassador Stevens's request for extra diplomatic security in Libya and for what reason. Both Obama and Joe Biden publicly declared that the White House had been totally unaware of the existence of such a request. Was it to hide the State Department's unease and alarm over the growing chaos and insecurity in post-Gaddafi Libya? Who sent Ambassador Rice to lie on no less than five TV news shows that the Benghazi consulate attack was a spontaneous public reaction to the infamous "Islam-bashing" video, when there is ample evidence that the commando-like assault may have been a premeditated, long-planned Al Qaeda operation?
And who is now trying to pin the blame on Director for National Intelligence, Lt. Gen. James Clapper? Maverick Republican congressmen like Dr. Ron Paul may even raise the question if the Islamic militia now blamed for the assault in Benghazi was the recipient of US covert aid during the anti-Gaddafi uprising. And also whether the tragic lesson of the Libyan "blowback" is being ignored in the case of war-ravaged Syria, where the foreign-sponsored anti-Assad opposition seems to be increasingly dominated by Al Qaeda-allied Islamic radicals.
For President Obama's supporters, the prospects of the damaging "Benghazi-gate" controversy dominating the national news as well as a prolonged investigation by the House Republicans are very worrisome, particularly at a time when both candidates are running neck-and-neck in the polls and Mitt Romney even enjoys a small edge over the President. And even worse, the unspoken hopes of Democrats that one or two top
Administration officials involved in "Benghazi-gate" are going to salvage Obama's re-election chances by falling on their swords (that is, resign rather than be fired) and sacrificing their current or future political careers are fading fast. What could be more depressing for Democrats today than this sudden and escalating "blowback" from the Libyan adventure which may by itself wreck Obama's drive for re-election?
Dr. Rossen Vassilev is a former Bulgarian diplomat to the United Nations in New York City and a lecturer at the Ohio State University, where he obtained a Ph.D. in political science in 2000.