Now that the Obama administration has belatedly admitted that the sacking of our consulate in Benghazi was a terrorist attack — and not, as they claimed for nearly two weeks, a particularly lively movie review — now what? The New York Times reports this morning that the US has begun preparing for a military attack on the “militants” involved in the terrorist attack, but that may run into some complications:
The United States is laying the groundwork for operations to kill or capture militants implicated in the deadly attack on a diplomatic mission in Libya, senior military and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday, as the weak Libyan government appears unable to arrest or even question fighters involved in the assault.
The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects, the officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the C.I.A., the command is preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the attack on a diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues three weeks ago.
Let’s pause for a moment here. If this is so “top-secret,” then how can the NYT be reporting on it? Simple: the administration is leaking this in the desperate attempt to look like they’re back on top of this situation. The Obama administration has discovered what happens when the White House lies, and lies badly, about terrorist attacks and their preparation for those attempts, and now they want to undo some of the damage by looking tough.
That’s going to be hard to do, however:
But any American military action on Libyan soil would risk casualties and almost certainly set off a popular backlash at a moment when gratitude for American support in the revolt against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has created a measure of appreciation for the United States in the region.
Reflecting a surge in nationalism, the Libyan government has opposed any unilateral American military action in Libya against the attackers. “We will not accept anyone entering inside Libya,” Mustafa Abu Shagur, Libya’s new prime minister, told the Al Jazeera television network. “That would infringe on sovereignty and we will refuse.”
At the same time, the Libyan government still depends almost entirely on autonomous local militias to act as the police, complicating any effort to detain the most obvious suspects. Libyan and American officials acknowledge the possibility that some of the perpetrators may have fled the country, perhaps across the porous southern border.
In other words, don’t expect any cooperation from Tripoli on drone strikes or Special Forces operations. We may not need them anyway to pinpoint terrorist havens, but if we don’t, that raises more questions about what we knew before the attacks that might have prevented the loss of four Americans, including our Ambassador.
Furthermore, if we don’t know much now, we’re not likely to find it out later, either. The article offers a number of references to the lack of interest in pursuing the terrorists involved on the part of Libyan authorities (such as they are), and we’re not able to send the FBI in to do any better. Besides, it seems as though more people treat this like a crime than an act of war, which is what an attack on a diplomatic mission is. Even the Times has this problem; it features the picture I used for the front-page graphic with this caption:
This widely published photograph, taken in the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left the American envoy and three others dead, appears to capture one potential witness.
A “potential witness“? That’s not a bunch of flowers in the man’s left hand — it’s an assault rifle. He looks a lot more like a potential suspect than a potential witness.
The problem with leaking this story is that it sets expectations for a quick strike of retribution on the terrorists responsible for the attack. Without any eyes on the ground and with at least one of the major terror networks on the move (Ansar al-Sharia has pulled out of Benghazi for the moment), it’s more likely that we’ll still be talking rather than striking for the next few months. Given our lack of attention to the threats in that region before the sacking of our consulate, it may be longer than that before we have a clear idea who to hit.