Saturday, February 9, 2013

The 3 P.M. Phone Call

On the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American embassies and missions throughout the Middle East and Africa were attacked. In Cairo, capital of what was once the key American ally in the Arab/Islamic world, a mob stormed the embassy, sovereign territory of the United States, tore down the American flag and hoisted the pirate banner of Al Queda. Shortly thereafter, another Islamic mob committed the same breach of sovereignty in Yemen, again replacing the Stars and Stripes with a black pennant praising Allah.

And, of course, in Benghazi, Libya, the American mission and another installation came under a sustained military siege that lasted approximately seven hours. Four Americans--our ambassador, Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, a foreign service officer, and Tryone Woods and Glen Doherty, the ambassador's security men and former Navy SEALs, died during the battle.

The Battle of Benghazi began around 9:40 p.m. local time--twenty minutes to four in the afternoon in Washington. Once, there were questions as to President Obama's ability to handle the "3 a.m. phone call." After the testimony this week of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we know now that the president was not prepared to answer the "3 p.m." phone call.

For we now know from these men, in sworn testimony, that President Obama personally did absolutely nothing while American property and lives were destroyed across the Middle East in a riot of celebration marking the anniversary of Islamic terrorism's greatest victory.

In considering the shocking, almost incredible, testimony of Panetta and Mullen, it is worth first noting the scope and ferocity of the Benghazi assault. It commenced with scores of armed men descending upon the American mission from all sides, firing AK-47 rifles and tossing grenades. They used jerrycans of diesel fuel to set the facility ablaze, trapping the ambassador and others behind a wall of flames.

From the first moments of the assault, as the mission sought to protect itself and acquire aid, the State Department in Washington was aware of the crisis.

A CIA team, located in a nearby annex, came to the rescue of the mission. The CIA men were able to evacuate the mission, though they could not find Ambassador Stevens amidst the flames. They spirited the survivors back to the annex. As they drove from the mission to the annex, the CIA vehicle came under heavy fire and made it back only with two flat tires. They reached the annex around 1 am local time, more than three hours after the assault commenced.

The Americans were holed up in the annex for another three hours, taking fire from time to time throughout the wee hours of the morning.  Eventually, a small security force arrived from Tripoli to assist in evacuating the annex. At about four in the morning local time, just as the group hoped to depart, the annex came under heavy military assault. Mortars landed directly upon the building, killing Woods and Doherty who were manning machine guns on the roof.

Finally, approximately seven hours after the attack on the mission began, the survivors escaped to the airport and safety.

Now juxtapose the account of the prolonged horror of Benghazi with that of President Obama's response to the attacks. During those seven hours, President Obama spoke with Leon Panetta and Mike Mullen once, for a half-hour, as part of a pre-scheduled meeting that took place more than an hour after the attack began. Contrary to comments the president made in the weeks after the attack, he issued no formal orders. In fact, he gave no specific direction to the Defense Department at all.  Neither Panetta nor Mullen spoke to president again and never spoke with Sec. of State Clinton. Panetta testified that he assumed the president's chief of staff was keeping the president abreast of developments.

The Panetta testimony is almost unbelievable. To credit the testimony is to accept that the highest levels of the United States government, the leadership of the world's most powerful nation, were inert, listless, incompetent and unmoved in the face of raging, prolonged attacks on its sovereign property and the lives of citizens who were in its service.

To accept the testimony is to accept that the president, the commander in chief, was either uninterested in the crisis, or a cowardly Pontius Pilate, or some combination of both. Regardless, Panetta's testimony unarguably paints a portrait of man guilty of gross negligence, a man who failed to discharge his most fundamental duties to the best of his ability.

To paraphrase Hillary Clinton in the midst of her greatest theatrics since the vast right wing conspiracy act, why, at this point, does any of this matter? It matters greatly, as a moral principle and for its practical effects.

The practical consequences of the president's inaction and weakness are obvious and present glad tidings to both terrorists and enemy governments. If the president does nothing in the face of mob attacks, what is he expected to do in the face of Iranian determination to acquire a nuclear weapon? Why should Al Queda or Hamas or Hezbollah hesitate to attack American citizens or property anywhere in the world? The United States has a president who doesn't even bother to amble down to the Situation Room while mobs kill his ambassador and rampage through American territory.

But greater than any practical concern, grave as they are, is the moral failure of the president and the United States government. It is simply morally unacceptable for the president of the United States to absent himself from his duties as Barack Obama did. The government is not designed to act in these most serious moments without leadership from the president; without his direction and care, the ship of state cannot set a course and keep it. It is his duty to command; he shirked this obligation.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the president compounded his failures by his obfuscation and the lies of his Administration regarding the genesis of the assault. To this day, not a single person has been arrested or captured in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2012, rendering the president's day-after rhetoric on justice for the killers the mere empty talk of a man determined to arrive timely at his next union fundraiser.  

President Obama failed Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues not because he failed to save them that night, but because he did not use every power at his disposal to try to save them. He has failed them by his dishonesty in his refusal to take responsibility for the lack of security that led up to their deaths and his lack of interest in bringing their murderers to justice.

And in failing Stevens and Smith and Woods and Doherty, President Obama fails the test of the presidency. His dereliction of duty is an intolerable failure of the trust of the American people.

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