The Obama administration’s national-security leadership vacuum was on full display during the February 7 Senate hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. Called at last to explain why America failed to guard effectively against the September 11 assault on our Benghazi consulate, and what happened during the attack itself, Panetta’s and Dempsey’s inadequate answers augur even graver dangers ahead.
Coupled with former secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s artful dodging during her January 23 Benghazi testimony, the Panetta-Dempsey sequel exposed what can only be called dereliction of duty, primarily by President Obama himself but also by his subordinates. This is not about simply another Benghazi postmortem, but an important insight into the ongoing weakness and inattention that is debilitating our ability to defend ourselves and our global interests. In Obama’s first term, the cancer spread slowly, but in his second it risks rapidly metastasizing, spurred on by the cumulative effects of massive Defense budget cuts already made, combined with the looming effects of the March 1 budget sequestration.
On September 11, Panetta and Dempsey were at a previously scheduled White House meeting with Obama when word of the Benghazi attack reached them. The president’s response, Panetta testified, was, “Do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there.” Sen. Kelly Ayotte asked whether Obama wanted specifics, like “how long it would take to deploy assets, including armed aviation, to the area?” “No,” said Panetta, Obama “left it up to us.” That was the last communication between the Pentagon and the commander in chief, and the last time Panetta spoke to anyone at the White House that day.
Words cannot adequately describe the implications of Obama’s lack of interest. Importantly, at the attack’s outset, it was obviously impossible to know whether Benghazi was a one-shot incident or the start of a wider onslaught throughout the region. The issue, therefore, was not merely what to do in Libya but other potential scenarios that needed presidential consideration and decision, none of which Obama apparently troubled himself with. It is insufficient that his subordinates remained in touch with Defense thereafter. The buck doesn’t stop on their desks.