Libyan Tragedy

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

Libya, specifically Benghazi, has been continuously in the news, and the mainstream media has diverted attention from the fourth-worst policy blunder of the Obama administration. It would normally be first-worst for any past president, but Syria and Iraq, Ukraine and Iran take catastrophe to a new level under Obama.

The diversion is an attempt by the media to force the American electorate to focus on whether or not the House Benghazi committee’s motives are pure. This is classic misdirection in the espionage world, and the attempt by CNBC “moderators” on Wednesday night was part of the same trajectory. The issue concerning Benghazi is not primarily about Secretary Clinton’s numerous expressions of duplicity, nor is it about her failure to observe basic security protocol for her communications. The issue is why there was a tragedy to begin with. Some of the members of the committee and some of the GOP presidential candidates have tried to highlight this. Libya was supposed to be the showcase for Obama foreign policy.

We must all remember the titanic irony here: The justification for American intervention in Libya, what became known as Operation Odyssey Dawn, was the city of Benghazi. In March of 2011, President Obama stated:

“And just yesterday, speaking of the city of Benghazi – a city of roughly 700,000 people – [Gadhafi] threatened, and I quote: ‘We will have no mercy and no pity’ – no mercy on his own citizens. Now, here is why this matters to us. Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gadhafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow. … I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal – specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.”

America called on Gadhafi to step down but assured him that America would not force it themselves. America was out to protect civilians but not to achieve military victory. America wanted to protect civilians but only on a late timetable. America backed the rebels but did not originally want to arm or train them. America wanted a rebel victory, but due to its unwillingness to be seen as a director, gave extremists groups among the rebels the upper hand. America was not an early proponent of the no-fly zone, leaving that leadership to France and Britain. America wanted NATO to lead, but forgot that America is the permanent military leader of NATO. The rebels took Libya, and many argued for the vindication of the Obama policy. However, this is exactly the opposite. The delay in action and the narrowness of action caused more loss of life and more destruction of property and allowed for the least amount of American influence. There is no such thing as a humanitarian war; there is only victory in war or utter defeat.

The Libyan case is an excellent example of the president out of his depth. First, there are months of dithering, then there are halfhearted measures with NATO to “prevent massacre” followed by strenuous efforts to be the follower, not the leader.

This is the stage that was set by the Obama White House and Clinton State Department. The administration had a greater fear that their flagship policy was being tarnished than it did for the security of American personnel and the stability of Libya as a whole. Libya was used over and over again to contrast with President Bush’s decisions on Iraq; Libya, claimed many Obama apologists, was “smart power.”

The second attempt at misdirection on Benghazi was the lack of focus on why more military assets in southern Europe were not immediately sent. The Special Forces team (Commander’s In-Extremis Force) training in Croatia was ordered first to Sicily, and fixed-wing airpower was not sent. There were two “FAST” anti-terror teams sent from Spain. The excuses are myriad but boil down to distance and time. One line of argument is that the attack was over in hours, and any American military response would have arrived later than the attack period. However, no one could have known how long the attack would last, nor how many attacks might follow. Thus any go-or-no-go decision should have been based on the immediacy of the intelligence. Further, Greg Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, has stated not only that continued requests for security increases were ignored, but that the military attache in Tripoli expected that fixed-wing aircraft could be in Benghazi in 2 to 3 hours, which due to the intimidation factor alone could have changed the nature of the conflict. Secretary of Defense Panetta stated that it would have taken 9 to 12 hours. Why? How is it possible for NATO aircraft, whose purpose is to respond immediately to a Russian attack, be so unprepared? If this can be linked to any aspects of the new thinking on defense budgets, heads should roll, and roll quickly.

Reasonable people can debate whether or not the response time was adequate, but these are operational and tactical questions. The focus of attention must be strategic. Why did the Obama administration assist the overthrow of the Libyan government without a decision to shape a future Libya with a strong hand? Why were Americans put into a chaotic and violent situation without planned strategic backup? Why was there an environment so desperate to argue that Islamic extremism was on a downward spiral? The only rational answer is the one that continues to haunt the Obama administration, and by definition the Clinton candidacy: Every time there has been a strategic decision that might enhance American national security and foreign policy, the decisions have made the situation worse, or at best, they were ineffective.

Instead of misdirection, the media should be holding up the administration for scrutiny on the strategic question. If Libya is an example of a future Clinton administration’s “smart power,” the United States simply can’t afford it.