A story in this morning’s New York Times points out that the United States did not have forces in place capable of protecting its personnel and Benghazi last September.
At the heart of the issue is the Africa Command, established in 2007, well before the Arab Spring uprisings and before an affiliate of Al Qaeda became a major regional threat. It did not have on hand what every other regional combatant command has: its own force able to respond rapidly to emergencies — a Commanders’ In-Extremis Force, or C.I.F.
To respond to the Benghazi attack, the Africa Command had to borrow the C.I.F. that belongs to the European Command, because its own force is still in training. It also had no AC-130 gunships or armed drones readily available.
As officials in the White House and Pentagon scrambled to respond to the torrent of reports pouring out from Libya — with Mr. Stevens missing and officials worried that he might have been taken hostage — they took the extraordinary step of sending elite Delta Force commandos, with their own helicopters and ground vehicles, from their base at Fort Bragg, N.C., to Sicily. Those troops also arrived too late.
Defenders of the administration will point to this Times story as partially exonerating White House officials from some of the charges leveled against them. At least they tried to save Ambassador Stevens and his team.
But the story raises deeper and far more troubling questions about how unprepared the administration was to deal with the new situation its intervention in Libya created. For months now, the security situation throughout Libya, in neighboring Mali, and in other countries has been deteriorating sharply. Bands of jihadis and their supporters are roaming almost at will. Under conditions like this, it was only a matter of time before American citizens or diplomats would be attacked or taken hostage.
This latest news is just one more piece of evidence pointing to the unhappy reality that the administration intervention in Libya was something the White House did not fully understand and for whose consequences it did not prepare. Washington jumped into Libya without knowing what it was doing; as the situation unraveled it dithered and delayed. Perhaps the White House didn’t want anybody to notice just how big a mess it had made and hoped that if America didn’t do anything dramatic the mess would just quietly go away on its own; perhaps it took a long time for the penny to drop.
But the United States overthrew Qaddafi without knowing quite what it was getting into, and then as the dangerous consequences gradually became more clear, it failed to take the precautions that the new situation demanded. That is the real reason why Ambassador Stevens and his team died alone, under fire, and without help from the country they were there to serve.