White House/Pete Souza
The raging controversy over the Sept. 11 tragedy at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, must not overshadow the broader, systemic Obama administration failures. In a second Obama term, those failures threaten even graver damage to American national security and should focus congressional efforts to chart an alternative course. If Mitt Romney prevails, the deep-seated consequences of four years of a profoundly misguided Obama worldview carry snares and risks for Mr. Romney’s foreign policy if not promptly and thoroughly addressed.
Proceeding on the happier assumption of a Romney victory, the new president must emphatically alter the prevailing mindset in key national security bureaucracies about the continuing global war on terrorism. After four years of Mr. Obama’s unwillingness even to acknowledge the reality of this ongoing menace, much more needs changing than just the top-line policy direction of the State and Defense departments and the intelligence community.
By now, Mr. Obama’s conventional wisdom is deeply ingrained that the war on terrorism is over and al Qaeda has been defeated. The administration thinks leading from behind to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi succeeded and provides a paradigm for future operations and that the Arab Spring is ushering in constitutional democracy in Libya and throughout the Middle East. Mr. Obama’s ideology has created the “screen of repression from consciousness,” in Karl W. Deutsch’s classic formulation in “The Nerves of Government,” which prevents facts and reality contrary to ideology from penetrating the decision-making process.
This screening manifested itself repeatedly during the Benghazi tragedy, starting with State’s inexplicable failure to respond to repeated requests from our Libya country team for enhanced security for U.S. personnel. We cannot be certain that better security would have prevented the tragedy, but we do know that — to date, at least — there has been no effective U.S. response or retaliation against the terrorists. The continuing failure to act is simply encouraging terrorists to strike other American citizens and facilities in the Middle East and elsewhere. This paralysis is rightly attributable to Mr. Obama personally, for it is unambiguously a critical responsibility of his National Security Council and staff to direct the operations of the bureaucracies involved, especially in the life-and-death issue of adequate security for Americans stationed overseas.
Clearing away the mindset that failed to protect Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues on Sept. 11 also requires eliminating what Jeane Kirkpatrick once tellingly labeled the “blame America first” mentality, which pervades the Obama administration. This predisposition to find fault with the United States rather than our enemies provided the foundation for the White House’s absurd argument that the Benghazi attack and riots against U.S. facilities elsewhere in the region were triggered by a movie-trailer video that was insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.
To the contrary, both State Department and CIA personnel on the ground in Benghazi saw that there were no “demonstrations” that got out of hand on Sept. 11. There was no “fog of war” and no need for “intelligence” when U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers knew from their own firsthand experience that they were under armed terrorist attack. Many believe the Muhammad video story was part of an Obama administration cover-up, which would be reprehensible and unconscionable if true. There is no doubt the Obama campaign and the White House (a redundancy, to be sure) had a compelling political motivation for the facts not to emerge before the election. We would, however, be blinking at Washington’s bureaucratic reality if we failed to acknowledge that the Obama administration’s ideology provides the politically correct working language in the permanent national security government.
It will not be enough for an incoming President Romney to change the policy rhetorically. His new administration surely will be jeopardized if it fails to recognize how pervasive the narrative about “success” in the war on terrorism from Mr. Obama’s alternative universe has become. Recasting the mindset that has been inculcated for the past four years will not be easy, although the difficulty will vary considerably among the departments and agencies involved. Some were more than ready to accept Mr. Obama’s mindset, while others resisted its unreality. There is no doubt that the culture of all the national security bureaucracies has been warped at least to some extent.
In the unhappy event Mr. Obama is re-elected, it will be imperative for Congress not to let his mistakes in Libya — before, during and after the Sept. 11 attack — fade away. The Constitution entrusts the bulk of foreign- and defense-policy decision-making to the executive, but Congress has ample responsibilities in budget and oversight matters to ensure that any administration is held accountable. The congressional role will be critical to protect against endless repetitions of the Benghazi scenario.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).