Another Benghazi

by Chris Toensing | published August 9, 2014 - 3:52pm

“We didn’t want another Benghazi.” Oh no, is that really why the Obama administration decided to bomb Iraq?

Do we have another bunch of fools in the White House who learn precisely the wrong lessons from their mistakes?

“Another Benghazi” -- let’s think about the many valences of that phrase. Thanks to FOX News, the name Benghazi conjures up a domestic political scandal, one so convoluted and silly that rational people feel compelled to tune in, every now and then, just to be reassured that it’s convoluted and silly. But Benghazi is first a city in Libya and it first had a distinctly not comical resonance in world politics.

“Another Benghazi” -- did the “senior administration official” who dropped this term in the New York Times mean the Benghazi that did not happen? The savage bloodbath that Col. Muammar Qaddafi threatened to order in the Libyan spring of 2011, but did not, in most Western minds, because NATO flew in to save the day? Such is the face value of the official’s reasoning as framed in much of the first part of the Times story. The Yazidis stranded in the mountains without adequate food and water could be starved into submission or massacred. The Kurds in Erbil and surrounding towns could face a grim fate of their own.

Yes, those things could occur -- look at the plight of Christians in the Iraqi north -- and one may hope that now they will not.

But, of course, the Benghazi-that-did-not-happen did happen in Libya, just not on Qaddafi’s schedule, not entirely in one city and not all at once. The increments have been getting larger of late, if the White House cares to pay attention. (This humble rag has also done a lousy job of covering Libya for the last couple of years. We are sorry and we will try harder.) But, in the corridors of power and in much of the media, the counterfactual Benghazi is much more important than the actual Benghazi, perhaps particularly because contemplating the real place in real time might hint that the consequences of NATO’s intervention are rather messier than the mythology insists.

Official Washington, in any case, bats nary an eyelash at this point. The consequences of doing something, they say, must be balanced against the consequences of doing nothing.

Never mind that the world -- and the role of US firepower in it -- is so complicated that sometimes those two sets of consequences are rather similar. The American can-do mentality regards such historically minded arguments as terribly depressing and perhaps European. Moral clarity, we say. Save the relativism for the seminar room.

Never mind that, as in Libya in 2011, the mission is already creeping two days in. The Obama administration now says that the United States will guard the Kurdish city of Erbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the “good Kurds” and indeed the staunchest US allies in Iraq, though no puppets. The vaunted peshmerga, it seems, are in big trouble against battle-hardened foes. Never mind that those foes honed their skills in battles that came about largely because of the 2003 US invasion. Never mind that they’re also fighting the loathed regime of Bashar al-Asad, and that bombing them is backhanded intervention in the Syrian war, on the regime’s side.

Never mind, while we’re on the subject of civil wars, that Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, believes that the so-called Islamic State “remains integrated within the wider Sunni Arab insurgency directed against the Shiites. Therefore, any US military action will extend beyond simply downgrading a terrorist organization” and risk making the US “a full-fledged participant in a wider, sectarian civil war.” Never mind that the US became exactly that in the mid-2000s, after setting the stage for the communal mayhem with its disastrous direct misrule of Iraq in 2003-2004.

And never mind that the Obama administration has plenty of experience doing nothing -- or, more accurately, doing several things wrong -- in places where doing something right might really help. These ironies, in official Washington, are also seen as academic observations.

So here’s one that’s real in all worlds -- at least all those yet discovered by human beings.

The Times story is quite clear that “another Benghazi” refers less to Qaddafi’s pre-crime than to the Islamist militant assault on the US consulate that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012. In Iraq, the Sunni fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State are approaching Erbil and are either threatening to capture or have captured the Mosul dam, which some fear they will destroy so as to flood the Iraqi capital and put their Shi‘i Islamist enemies to flight. Not coincidentally, the US has key personnel in both locales. “We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Erbil, and we have to make sure that they are not threatened,” President Barack Obama himself told Thomas Friedman for another Times piece quoted in the big story today. To protect Americans from extremists armed with US-made heavy weaponry, the president pulled the trigger.

Wait a minute -- “another Benghazi” -- was the Obama administration worried that the so-called Islamic State would murder US diplomats or soldiers and open up the White House to charges of failing to shield Americans from harm? Is that why the president decided to bomb Iraq?

Well…. It’s never far from the minds of official Washington, Democratic and Republican, that the attack dogs of the other party are straining at the leash. Boy, wouldn’t the Lindsey Grahams of the world like to have “another Benghazi” about which to hold pointless hearings? Wouldn’t the Sean Hannitys of the world relish “another Benghazi” about which to host endless rehashings?

Yes, that may be another key to the code in the senior official’s remark. Presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican, when they ask themselves the question “to bomb or not to bomb,” seek the answer at least partly in polling numbers and the imagined talking points of the other side. The Democrats, if anything, are more susceptible to this contemptible thinking because the Republicans, since the Cold War, are so adept at painting their opponents as pacifist squishes. (Hell, the Democrats, like abuse victims who refuse therapy, campaign against each other in these terms.)

The New York Times enables the pathology with its paragraph-three description of Obama’s agony at being “forced” by circumstance “to abandon his long-standing reluctance to use military force.” Which reluctance is that, exactly? It’s as counterfactual as the Benghazi that didn’t happen.

Neither the facts of Obama’s record nor the fact of bombing Iraq again appeases the American right, of course. Sen. Graham and his Greek chorus are already condemning the latter as a “policy of half-measures” and calling for escalation, just as they did in the case of Libya, when Obama-bots and other interventionists also scoffed at the idea of a “slippery slope” on which hopes for a peaceful future would slide inexorably down.

Saddest of all is that, by bombing Iraq to forestall “another Benghazi,” the Obama administration may very well get one, in at least some of the senses above if not -- heaven forbid -- all of them. Or rather, Iraq may very well get “another Benghazi” and the Obama administration may very well find itself blinking away another “intelligence failure” before the bright lights on the boob tube.

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