The Evolution of the “Obama Doctrine” after Benghazi

The other day, I wondered whether using three C-130s to bring a team of FBI Agents to Benghazi was overkill. And while I was able to get some kind of explanation (1 transport, 1 decoy, 1 to bring the toys), given this report on all the Special Forces C-130s swarming out of Crete…

In the last weeks, an unsual, covert, constant activity of U.S. Special Operations planes has been recorded in the Mediterranean Sea. Quite regularly, taking off from Souda Bay, in Crete, various types of “Special Hercules”, including  MC-130Ps, MC-130Hs, HC-130P, and AC-130U gunships, performed day and night missions in the Libyan airspace whose purpose has yet to be fully unveiled.

As well as very vague reports that the Special Forces were not just protection–but were “helping gather intel”–in Benghazi, I’m not so sure.

Special Forces were always likely to help investigate this killing, but it appears there’s some kind of funky hybrid going on, the latest iteration of partnership between our National Security agencies in the war on terror.

And today, John Brennan headed to Libya to meet with Mohammed Magarief, who has been trying to consolidate national power even while the Prime Minister elect was ousted in a failure to form an acceptable government.

It’s against that background that this WaPo piece offers some key insight.

Before I get into it, I’m using “Obama Doctrine” as David Sanger did in his book. I think it’s a bogus term, but it’s the evolution in policy Sanger described as Obama moved away from CounterIntelligence in Afghanistan, to Counterterrorism, to a belief that partners and locals could carry out the fighting in Libya and elsewhere. The problem with that plan, I’ve always believed, is it offers no better solutions and some worse problems in how you establish the security and institution-building that countries need to have viable economies and legal systems. You’re still faced with the whole failed state problem.

In addition to general Islamist sentiment, Ambassador Steves’ assassination happened in an environment where the government was trying to nurture regime change and nation reformation without the military footprint we had in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Stevens appears to have had real security concerns, he also apparently pushed to have an open presence and to encourage capacity building in Libyans. Arguably, that’s part of what got him killed.

The WaPo catches us up to what kind of dilemmas that presents now as we try to find the best way to respond.

Should it rely on the FBI, treating the assaults on the two U.S. compounds like a regular crime for prosecution in U.S. courts? Can it depend on the dysfunctional Libyan government to take action? Or should it embrace a military option by ordering a drone strike — or sending more prisoners to Guantanamo Bay?


All of the options available to the United States could have lasting consequences in Libya, where a transitional government is plagued by infighting and elected leaders have been unable to assume the full reins of power.

Even the basic issue of allowing the FBI to access the crime scene at the U.S. mission in Benghazi for less than a day last Thursday was politically sensitive for Libyans, a Foreign Ministry official said.

“There is very strong public opinion about the Americans coming here and running the investigation,” said Saad el-Shlmani, a ministry spokesman. Some top officials, he added, see the country’s sovereignty at stake.

But deferring to Libya’s fragile justice system — still warped after 42 years of undemocratic rule by Moammar Gaddafi — hardly presents an attractive choice for the administration.

Given how successfully (to the detriment of our civilian legal system) the Administration has been able to introduce limited amounts of intelligence as evidence, while hiding vast swaths of it, I suspect if they take custody of anyone, they will try them in a civilian court.

All that said, I’d like to return to a parallel I made before: to the investigation following the USS Cole bombing in Yemen.

In that case, we had good FBI Agents (including Ali Soufan) on the ground. While they were stymied by State’s desire not to push Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government too far, they were able to develop a sound picture–and admissible evidence–of the perpetrators in the attack. We let Yemen try several of them, which led to their escape from jail.

And yet, after 11 years of coddling Saleh partially in hopes it might make Yemen a move viable country, all while Saleh was playing a double game with us, using al Qaeda to create the need for additional arms, we finally gave up and replaced Saleh; I suspect there’s damning intelligence in a file somewhere showing he had much closer ties to the extremists who attacked us, but that’ll never see the light of day because Americans can’t know that we were basically equipping someone with actionable ties to AQAP.

We tried not to push Saleh too hard in 2000, but that didn’t prevent Saleh from using the extremists in his country to try to prop up his own personal power, without an associated increase in the viability of the Yemeni state.

And meanwhile, 10 years after his capture, 2 waterboardings, 1 mock execution, and other torture later, Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri still has not been tried for his role in the attack. We’ve proven just as incapable as the Yemenis of bringing to justice the men who attacked the USS Cole.

This is part of the reason why Obama has embraced drones, but as the WaPo points out, drone retaliation in Libya could have a particularly toxic effect there.

Some Libyans remember the 1986 airstrikes on Tripoli ordered by President Ronald Reagan in response to suspicions that Libya was responsible for the bombing of a West Berlin disco that killed two U.S. service members and injured 79 others.

“For Libya [drone strikes] would be a disaster. Libya is in a very fragile place,” said Shlmani, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Any unilateral action by any country, but especially by the United States, would really be damaging.”

Presumably, John Brennan was cooking up some kind of response today, presumably, one mapped out with the election in mind.

This kind of problem was predictable when the US intervened to overthrow Moammar Qaddafi, so a part of me thinks the Administration got its just deserts for intervening without stronger legal and military justification. But at this point the stakes are so high, I still hope (but doubt, particularly given election pressures) they get the careful balance going forward.

5 replies
  1. Brindle says:

    You wrote:

    “And meanwhile, 10 years after his capture, 2 waterboardings, 1 mock execution, and other torture later, Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri still has not been tried for his role in the attack.”

    Seems to me any statements made after someone has been tortured and they are still in custody are totally discredited and should be unusable, even if it is years after the torture sessions

    From a May 08′ WaPo piece.

    —In a hearing at Guantanamo last year, Nashiri said he confessed to masterminding the Cole attack only because he had been tortured. “From the time I was arrested five years ago, they have been torturing me,” he said, according to a transcript. “I just said those things to make the people happy.”

  2. The Sun Never Sets Redux says:

    … given this report on all the Special Forces C-130s swarming out of Crete.

    lol – had to stop and do some research after reading that casually tossed off military nugget

    Souda Air Base

    CNIC // Naval Support Activity Souda Bay

    The United States Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay is strategically located on the northwest coast of the rugged Greek island of Crete. NSA extends Joint and Fleet War fighting capability through Operational Support to usa, Allied and Coalition Forces deployed within the EUCOM/CENTCOM/ AFRICOM AOR.

    NSA Souda Bay is located on the Hellenic Air Force Base and occupies an area of approximately 110 acres on the North side of the air base, which is the home of the Hellenic Air Force’s 115th Combat Wing.

    at this point in time, please allow me to ask one (1) question – is there ANY PLACE on this planet that the usa does NOT have a military / governmental installation of some sort???? but the usa is NOT an empire – no no no nosireebobsyouruncle ….

  3. Under The Radar says:

    Reuters has a couple of interesting articles on developments re: Libya / State Dept / congress

    usa security officer received no reply to requests for more security in Benghazi

    A usa security officer twice asked his State Department superiors for more security agents for the American mission in Benghazi months before an attack that killed the usa ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, but he received no response.

    The officer, Eric Nordstrom, who was based in Tripoli until about two months before the September attack, said a State Department official, Charlene Lamb, wanted to keep the number of usa security personnel in Benghazi “artificially low,” according to a memo summarizing his comments that was obtained by Reuters.

    usa diplomatic security unit under scrutiny after Libya attack

    The attack on the usa diplomatic mission in Benghazi on September 11 has sharpened congressional scrutiny of a State Department office that protects diplomats in the world’s most dangerous corners, as lawmakers ask whether it fatally misjudged the dangers of post-revolution Libya.

    The little-known Bureau of Diplomatic Security saw its budget expand about tenfold in the decade after the deadly 1998 bombings of usa embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Contributing to that growth were the usa-launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, with more diplomats moving into hostile territory.

    In 2007, the bureau’s director resigned after a State Department panel faulted its oversight of Blackwater and other private security contractors in Iraq after at least 14 Iraqi civilians were shot dead in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Under The Radar: That’s a pretty dishonest report. First of all, bc “US Government Official” is often code for “Member of Congress,” meaning this is likely someone in Chaffetz’ shop.

    Moreover, while it talks about the expansion of the Bureau’s budget, it cuts off its numbers at 2009. The budget has been cut consistently since then. And even in 2009, it was totally unequal to the work it has to do.

  5. Eric Hodgdon says:

    67 years of Adventurism, compounded by economic inroads for over 100 years, gets tiring to the rest of the World. Exporting ‘our’ ‘culture’ of contentment must end now. Our Empire is an illusion.

    Using military force to force ourselves onto unwilling partners is RAPE. It’s past time to work at home and raise our standard of living whereby equality is normative.

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