Now that he has been safely re-elected, Barack Obama’s personal foreign and defence views no longer pose any risk to him in domestic political terms. Unfortunately, however, the international risks caused by his radical ideology, naivety and simple ineptness, added to the damage already done in the first term, are increasingly apparent. The Obama Administration’s failures to date cover the full spectrum of national security affairs. At the strategic level, there is utter incoherence in dealing long term with powers like Russia and China, or the swirling morass of conflicts in the Middle East. In the immediate future, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes are speeding ahead as regional and global threats, without even effective tactical opposition by the United States and its allies.
There was no enhanced security before, during or after the September 11, 2012 attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi
These and many other dangers, new and emerging, were all present in Obama’s first term. But only near the end of the long election campaign, in the September 11 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, did many of the Administration’s failures stand fully exposed to public view. Although Republican political leaders failed to communicate Benghazi’s import to the voters (indeed, they essentially fled from the issue), its significance, domestically and globally, should not be underestimated. To be sure, identifying historical turning points is a tricky business. Events that, in their own time, seem sure to qualify can fade away, while obscure happenings later become, in history’s judgment, major departures. Take Zhou En-lai’s 1972 remark that “it is too soon to tell” about the consequences of the French Revolution. Or perhaps he was referring to the 1968 Paris riots; either way, Zhou’s prudence makes the point.
But with events unfolding at a truly dizzying pace, we must still ask, even if hazardous, whether a turning point occurred on September 11 in Benghazi, with the murder of the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three others. Certainly, the attack and its consequences continue to roil the US political debate. Some commentators compare Benghazi to Watergate, noting sarcastically that no one died at Watergate. Neither the bungled burglary nor the terrorist attack materially disrupted the incumbent president’s path to electoral victory, this time despite Obama’s utterly lame explanation that the attack resulted from local outrage over an internet video ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. Nonetheless, the damage to Obama’s second term, as to Nixon’s, could be considerable. Obviously, occurring on the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Libya killings have added resonance, even though the 2012 butcher’s bill was mercifully far lower.
There are, however, clear differences. Both Watergate and the first September 11 produced press extravaganzas, whereas Benghazi and the White House “explanation” initially seemed likely to disappear from the media radar screen. Among the major players, only Fox News kept investigating and reporting new information in the weeks that followed. In Watergate, there was unquestionably a White House-led cover-up to prevent the facts from emerging, which may or may not characterise Obama and Benghazi. The even more worrying truth could be that Obama’s ideological conviction that al-Qaeda has been defeated and that “the tide of war was receding” might simply have blinded his Administration to reality.
Just days after the election, the potential makings of a turning point materialised with the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus, apparently forced by an extramarital affair; and the controversy over Ambassador Susan Rice’s public commentary about Benghazi, which imperilled her potential nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. With a sex scandal and a potentially bruising Senate confirmation fight in prospect, the mainstream US media finally came alive, as usual focusing on the sensational rather than the significant.
Whether or not Benghazi has dramatic historical importance, and reflects the point at which a true American global decline became evident, there is no doubt the tragedy embodies all the continuing defects of Obama’s worldview and his blindness toward significant international realities. For purposes of assessing the course of a second Obama term, Benghazi may well hold the keys, both as to the policies and personnel of the coming four years.
On the blindness issue, Russia and China remain potential great power threats to America and the West, but these large historical challenges receive almost no attention from Obama himself. Unfortunately, the policy vacuum at the centre of Obama’s relations with these states can be easily and quickly described: he simply ignores or misunderstands them, or both. No better example exists than the notorious March 2012 “open microphone” conversation with Russia’s President Medvedev, where Obama asked for “space” for his own political safety before the November election, seemingly clueless about the actual signal he was sending. Similarly, Obama’s massive budget cuts (nearly a trillion dollars) to US defence capabilities in his first term, coupled with his utter indifference to decreases of another half-trillion inherent in the December 31 “fiscal cliff”, all reflect his comfort with American decline; he believes he can ignore external affairs at no risk.
On the Middle East, however, with its combustible mixture of religion and politics, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, Obama does have both genuine interest and clear ideological biases, which are uniformly wrong. His only successes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden (after ten years of effort commencing in 2001) and the unexpected continuation of many Bush Administration operational approaches to terrorism (such as retaining the Guantánamo Bay detention facility), have been due largely to the brute force of reality rather than Obama’s personal inclinations.