After a week of hesitation, the White House now says it is “self-evident” that a “terrorist attack,” and not just a spontaneous reaction from a furious mob, struck the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week.
The characterization is important, because it opens the door to the conclusion that the attack was a preplanned assault, resulting in the deaths of four US diplomats, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
The repercussions of declaring that the Benghazi attack was a planned terrorist assault on the United States would be extensive. For starters, it would raise questions about the Obama administration’s precautions in a volatile region and its preparedness for anti-US strikes in an area known to harbor Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist elements.
More broadly, it could call into question President Obama’s Middle East policy in the wake of the Arab awakening. Some Republican critics are already tarring the policy as too weak and dismissive of the threats that the region’s tumult presents.
Far from clarifying the situation, the White House characterization of the Benghazi attack as self-evidently a terrorist attack only muddies the waters further, some foreign-policy experts say.
“I heard that phrase, and I thought, what do they mean? Are they using ‘self-evident’ as kind of a throwaway phrase to say, “Well, this was a situation where violence was used with intent against a US facility”? Or are they saying, ‘We’ve got evidence that this was a preplanned event’?” says Wayne White, a former State Department official with experience in intelligence gathering in the Middle East. “It’s just not clear what this statement really says.”
On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, “It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” adding, “Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials.”
Later at a question-and-answer session in Miami organized by the Spanish-language TV network Univision, Mr. Obama emphasized that while many details are still unclear, it appeared that extremists had used protests resulting from outrage over an anti-Muslim video as an “excuse” to attack US interests.
“What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm US interests,” Obama said. “We don’t know yet,” he added, “and so we are going to continue to investigate this.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department have mounted investigations into the Benghazi attack.
The administration’s explanation of what happened in Benghazi marks a shift in its earlier assertions that the attack was spontaneous and showed no signs of preplanning. That position came under stiff criticism from a number of Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain, who cast doubt on the “spontaneous” characterization because of the intensity of the attack and the heavy weaponry employed in it.
The tweaking of the administration’s position on what happened could be the result of new information that has come in, Mr. White says – or it could simply be the result of building pressure on the White House.
“There’s always pressure in these situations to produce something concrete even when they don’t have it,” he says. “The administration is under pressure from Congress, the electorate, and the media to say something more definitive than what they said before, and it could be they just decided to go with something.”
Even with very little clarity on what happened in Benghazi, says White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, the US did know plenty about eastern Libya: that Al Qaeda, its affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other Islamist extremist groups are operating in the area; and that “the government doesn’t have anything approaching control” of the eastern portion of the country.
It is also clear, White says, that the US installations in a newly liberated Libya (and in particular the consulate in Benghazi) were not secure compounds “hardened” to current State Department specifications. But, he also says, that kind of construction takes time, while diplomatic efforts could not wait.
“There are times in diplomacy when you cannot adequately protect your diplomats in the short term,” he says.
On the other hand, he rejects some speculation that Ambassador Stevens, in his enthusiasm for Benghazi, where he had previously served as envoy to Libya’s rebels, may have played down the dangers.
“Chris was not a hot-dog, and he did not disobey orders,” White says. “That makes me certain there was no red flag before this about getting out to Benghazi, because he was extremely dedicated to his people [staff] and would have never knowingly put them at undue risk.”