By Ethan Chorin
On the morning of September 12, 2012, I sat in the office of the director of the Benghazi Medical Center with a group of people, Libyans and Americans, all burdened with information the world did not yet have:
an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi had killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens (whom I knew since the end of my own posting to Libya with the State Department several years before), and some number of other American officials. I had been in and out of Benghazi for nearly a year, helping the Center identify suitable U.S. institutional partners, and finalize a partnership to build emergency medicine capacity in Libya’s East.
My gut reaction that day and the following was that the attack would negatively impact U.S. policy towards Libya. I expressed this fear in a New York Times Op-Ed published September 13, in which I argued, “the gravest mistake would be for the United States to write off Libya as an irredeemable terrorist haven, or for politicians in Washington to regret having intervened in support of Libya’s rebels.” But I could not have begun to imagine how profoundly the attack, but even more the administration’s response to it, would impact the U.S. domestic political agenda, U.S. policy in the region, and the welfare and future of the Libyan people.
For all that has been written and broadcast on the subject over the last four years, it is amazing that two unequivocal statements on the Benghazi attack remain elusive: First, that the attack was well-planned, and unconnected to an incendiary anti-Muslim video. Second, that the implicit purpose of the attack was to get the U.S. and the West out of Libya, so that extremist forces could consolidate gains in a country where they could not win at the ballot box. The devastating attack on the U.S. marines barracks in 1983 by a then-unknown terrorist organization provided a compelling precedent: that act, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers, led to the departure of foreign missions and the shutdown of an international mediation effort, which together arguably extended the Lebanese civil war by years.
The first statement should have been made within days of the attack for, in addition to whatever the intelligence community had at its disposal, there were several unimpeachable eyewitnesses. Among them was Ambassador Guido De Sanctis, then Italian Consul General in Benghazi (himself the target of an assassination attempt in Benghazi the following January). De Sanctis was waiting for Stevens at a restaurant adjacent to the compound when the attack occurred. He summarized for me a statement that was carried in the Italian daily La Stampa immediately after the attack: “I thought I had elements enough to tell ADNKronos that it did not seem to be a degenerated protest against the film, but a military operation.”
In the same September 13 Op-Ed, I gave enough detail for readers to infer (before this became an issue) that I also had reason to believe the attack unfolded quickly and violently. Within weeks, other Western eyewitnesses and independent Arab and American journalists corroborated and expanded in substantial detail upon these impressions. To this day, to my knowledge, none of these sources have appeared in mainstream assessments of the attack, nor were their authors called to testify before Congress. I translated what I thought were the key references and sent them to elected U.S. officials and the FBI. While the FBI was open to new information, I was told these details were inconsistent with information collected on site many weeks after the attack. I had been surprised to read the President’s September 25, 2012 U.N. General Assembly Speech, in which the medical project a colleague and I had initiated more than a year before was cited as one of the reasons Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi on the 11th. While Stevens knew of the existence of the medical project from me, there had been no prior plan for us to meet in Benghazi. Indeed, we had been originally scheduled to meet in Tripoli on the 11th. I questioned the diligence of the President’s fact-checkers.
The depth and persistence of the confusion around the attack supports the not-infrequently made assertion that the administration feared an election impact if an Al Qaeda connection could be established in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden (thereby undermining administration claims to be winning the War on Terror). It appears then, that the White House wished to maintain ‘plausible deniability’ about the exact nature of the attack until the 2012 election was over. Given the supercharged political climate, and very real efforts to undermine Clinton, the instinct to deflect is comprehensible. But it was a mistake with momentous consequences. For by kicking the can down the road on Benghazi, the Obama administration found itself stuck with an oddly inconsistent story that created a substrate upon which charges against candidate Clinton, some predictable and unfair, and some less so, could grow.
After the 2012 election, Democrats continued to insist that the focus on Benghazi was a partisan witch-hunt whose sole purpose was to deny Clinton the White House. But even in that context, the grilling could have been worse: key questions, like the nature of the connections between the U.S. and Libyan and Syrian Islamists, and what, exactly, Stevens was doing in Benghazi and on whose orders, remained un-probed, at least publicly.
The morning of 9/12/12 should have been the moment the Obama Administration sat up, paid attention and corrected course. Instead, the fuzzy reaction to the attack drove the U.S. deeper into confusion over what it was doing in Libya. In an off-the-record conversation in Washington earlier in 2012, Stevens laid out to me what he feared what would happen if the U.S. abandoned Benghazi, as the growing chaos was too strong to manage with the resources available. This was part of my testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Instead of trying to understand the country better after Stevens’ death, however, the U.S. appointed officials with no direct knowledge of Libya to advise upon and implement Libya policy. The question remains — why?
I have spent more than 20 years working in Africa and the Middle East as an energy and port executive, a U.S. diplomat and currently, as CEO of Perim Associates LLC, and Editor of AR3 Magazine (www.africar3.com). I am interested in post-conflict stabilization, entrepot cities and topics in renewable energy. I am the author of two books on Libya, Exit the Colonel (Public Affairs, 2012), and Translating Libya (Darf, 2015). A two-time Fulbright Fellow (Yemen, Jordan), I hold a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in Agricultural and Resource Economics, an M.A. from Stanford in International Policy Studies, and a B.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale.