9/11 and BENGHAZI: Lessons Learned for Syria?

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., September 11, 2013 – Let us first take a moment to remember the 2,977 innocent victims who lost their lives on this date in 2001 as well as the four brave Americans who lost their lives one year ago today in Benghazi. We should also remember what led to those events and examine how our Nation responded. As we sit on the precipice of a political decision that could fuel the same type of extremist hatred that led to those murderous attacks, it would seem judicious to examine the trajectory we are on with respect to Syria.

September 11, 2001, was a wake-up call. Until that time, our Nation had never suffered a foreign terrorist attack on its soil of any comparable scale. We were living in a utopic world in which we only read about terrorist events happening elsewhere and never expected them to occur here. Here’s a timeline of what transpired:

  • Already fighting through a recession fueled by the collapse of the Internet Bubble, the stock market is closed because of the attack until September 17th only to reopen to the worst day and week in its history.
  • In response to the attack, the Administration asserts that President Bush has the unilateral right to make war.
  • Opponents challenge that assertion and characterize it as an unconstitutional power grab.
  • In October, with a limited Congressional resolution in hand, President Bush begins a “War against Terror” against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
  • Also in October, the Patriot Act is passed.
  • Opponents of the Patriot Act characterize it as a stripping of individual rights (think: NSA and IRS for a more contemporary perspective).
  • The use of enhanced interrogation techniques is authorized.
  • Opponents claim that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques is a war crime.
  • The Bush Administration authorizes a massive expansion of the Government by creating the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The war effort and much of the government expansion are funded by debt.
  • Two years later (2003), the intelligence community presents compelling evidence that Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) that might fall into the hands of terrorists.
  • The United States enters into another war (this time in Iraq) to prevent the spread of WMDs.
  • As the cost of the two wars rises and our Government continues to expand, President Bush calls upon Congress to raise the Nation’s debt limit.
  • Opponents characterize the raising of the debt ceiling as being indicative of the Government’s “reckless fiscal policies…its debt problem, and a failure of leadership.”

Fast-forward to 2009 – 2011. Our Nation exits the Bush years and embraces the “Hope and Change” brought forth by its new President, Barack Obama. Here’s a timeline of what transpired:

  • President Obama inherits a massive recession driven by the cost of the two wars, associated government expansion, etc.
  • The President responds by increasing debt and pushing for additional government expansion.
  • Twelve days into office, he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “multi-lateral diplomacy … emphasis on the role that the United Nations … can play … (and belief that) dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.” 
  • Opponents criticize the award as being “premature.”
  • The President calls for the closing of Guantanamo within one year because its mere existence incites extremists and puts the United States at risk.
  • He also denounces and discontinues enhanced interrogation techniques.
  • President Obama declares that there is no “War on Terror” and the phrase loses traction.
  • He escalates the non-existent war by approving 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.
  • In 2010, he sends another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
  • In 2011, President Obama begins to fulfill one of his campaign promises by winding down the War in Iraq.
  • In response to civil unrest in Libya, the President calls for Muammar al-Gaddafi to step down.
  • The Administration asserts that President Obama has the unilateral right to take military action in Libya without the authorization of Congress.
  • Opponents challenge that assertion and characterize it as an unconstitutional power grab.
  • As Guantanamo remains open, the President escalates the use of drones without acknowledging any potential impact on extremists.
  • Opponents claim that the use of drones constitutes a war crime and, in some cases, a violation of due process.
  • He also capitalizes upon information previously derived from enhanced interrogation techniques to locate and kill Osama bin Laden, which also apparently does not offend extremists.
  • With the cost of the two wars started by President Bush along with the accelerated expansion of government under the Obama Administration, the President calls upon Congress to raise the Nation’s debt limit.
  • Opponents characterize the raising of the debt ceiling as being indicative of the government’s reckless fiscal policies, its debt problem, and a failure of leadership.
  • The Libyan revolution ends shortly after the death of Muammar al-Gaddafi and an interim government is put in place.

Are you detecting the irony yet?

Entering into 2012:

  • As might be expected after a coup in the Middle East, Libya can best be characterized by its instability and bloodshed.
  • There is an assassination attempt on the British Ambassador, which leads to the closure of the British consulate in Benghazi in June.
  • The Tunisian consulate is attacked as well.
  • In August, the International Red Cross withdraws from Benghazi because of escalating violence.
  • In an unrelated matter, President Obama makes a comment during a press conference that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross his “red line.”
  • Returning to Libya, animosity is particularly strong against the United States, which experiences approximately 50 security incidents in Benghazi alone.
  • U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens requests additional security throughout the summer, but his requests are rejected.
  • Ambassador Stevens expresses his concerns about al-Qaeda’s expanding presence in the area.

September 11, 2012: We were asleep at the switch. The world had changed, and we were aware of it. Yet, we managed to ignore an eroding security scenario in an unstable country. Here’s a timeline of what transpired:

  • Security guards at the consulate observe a man in a Libyan police uniform photographing the compound from the roof of a building across the street.
  • 125-150 gunmen begin an assault on the consulate at 9:40 PM using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), automatic weapons, mortars, and machine guns mounted on trucks.
  • Washington and the embassy in Tripoli are notified that the consulate is under attack.
  • The Benghazi CIA annex is notified as well.
  • The Global Response Staff (GRS) from the annex decides to attempt a rescue operation.
  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is informed of the attack about 50 minutes into the event.
  • A drone is dispatched and arrives over the site at 11:10 PM.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with CIA Director David Petraeus in D.C. about the incident about two hours into the event.
  • President Obama is briefed on the attack.
  • No military assistance is authorized to respond to the attack (in fact, some units are told to stand down).
  • Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith are dead.
  • GRS is forced to disengage at 11:50 PM.
  • Approximately ten minutes later, the CIA annex is attacked with mortar rounds, rockets, and machine gun fire.
  • Former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty are killed.
  • Fighting at the annex continues until morning.
  • Personnel in the annex are evacuated.
  • President Obama condemns the attack as “outrageous” and promises that the responsible parties will be brought to justice.
  • Secretary Clinton describes it as perpetrated by “heavily armed militants.”
  • Four days later, Libyan President Magariaf describes the assault as a terrorist attack.
  • On the same day, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appears on five major news programs and states that our best intelligence indicates that the attack was “spontaneously inspired” by the protest of an anti-Islamic film that had aired on the Internet.
  • President Obama mentions the film multiple times in a speech to the U.N.
  • The President and Secretary Clinton make a commercial to air in Pakistan that references the appalling film.
  • It is an election year.
  • The filmmaker is arrested on unrelated charges.
  • When the “film” explanation is no longer plausible, Secretary Clinton explains that the mistaken intelligence was due to the “fog of war.”
  • A year later, the responsible parties remain at large.

Fast-forward to August 21, 2013: A civil war is raging in Syria. The United States isn’t involved nor are any of its citizens threatened. A chemical weapons attack occurs and over 1,000 Syrians are killed. Note: Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed by conventional weapons since the revolution began in April 2011, but that apparently doesn’t spin anyone’s moral compass.

Both President Obama and the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, have said that there have been multiple chemical weapons attacks since the President made his “red line” comment a year prior. Perhaps this one stands out because it was caught on tape. Another possibility is that it merits a response because of its scale; except that would suggest that the use of chemical weapons is only horrific if orchestrated on a grand scale.

Should the use of chemical weapons in Syria come as a surprise?

Syria is one of only five Members of the United Nations that had not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was introduced 21 years ago. No one saw fit to pressure Syria to sign and ratify the CWC during that timeframe.

Syria has been known have the capacity to manufacture and store chemical weapons for decades. The United States intelligence community offered compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime was transporting chemical weapons to Syria prior to the War in Iraq to evade U.N. inspections. This is the same intelligence community that assured the world that other WMDs were still in Iraq before that war started.

Now, that same intelligence community has offered compelling evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. It has also been deduced that the deployment of such weapons must have occurred under the direction of the Assad regime.

Given this information and his “red line” comment, President Obama has decided that the United States should launch a military attack on Syria. However, as recently as September 10, 2012, the President had also stated that there is no immediate or impending threat to the United States or its allies. Still, a man’s word is his bond … and apparently his country’s as well.

Luckily, Secretary Kerry’s recent attempt at sarcasm stimulated Russia’s leaders to capitalize on the statement and craft a possible diplomatic solution (i.e., securing Syria’s chemical weapons to preclude their use and either destroying them or submitting them to the control of the U.N.). This would obviate the need to launch a limited military attack that would almost certainly kill innocent people to preserve “international norms” and the “moral high ground.”

To reprise Secretary Kerry’s recent “We know” speech based upon the lessons of the first 9/11 attack and the last year’s attack in Benghazi:

  • We know that the latest chemical weapons attack in Syria was perpetrated by the Assad regime based upon the assessment of the intelligence community that has been tracking WMD activity in the region since prior to the Iraq War.
  • How comfortable are you that the assessment is correct (i.e., comfortable enough to accept the fact that the action will likely kill innocent victims)?
  • We know that terrorist organizations and hostile countries resent U.S. occupation of their land and interference in the governance of their countries. Do you think the impact of launching a limited military attack (but one that’s bigger than a “pin prick”) would incite extremists at least as much as Guantanamo?
  • We know that the Assad regime is a ruthless dictatorship just as we knew the Mubarak regime was a ruthless dictatorship in Egypt. We also know that factions within the Syrian rebel forces have a propensity for decapitating Christians, executing government forces, and committing other acts of despicable violence. Who would you rather have in power?
  • We know that the President’s “red line” is the world’s “red line.” Yet, we know the world isn’t lining up to support us as we consider enforcing it. Why?
  • We know that other cultures, particularly some of those that are indigenous to the Middle East, are remarkably different than ours particularly when it comes to the value they place on human life (including distinctions they may make between men, women, and children). Is it possible that their view may be less inclined to differentiate between the means used to kill a person than we do?
  • We know that we accept the euphemism of “collateral damage” to describe civilian deaths that occur during drone strikes, etc. Is it possible that Syrians embrace that same concept without our concern for minimizing it?
  • We know that the original attack on 9/11 spawned more attempts in the United States and abroad based upon jihad and contributed to the attack in Benghazi.
  • Is a limited military attack on Syria more likely or less likely to reinforce jihad against the United States among extremists?

The list could go on, but this should be sufficient to suggest that our leaders need to have fully vetted the adverse consequences that could be associated with any military action that is unilaterally orchestrated by the United States. To quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” One final question: What have we learned from the events of both 9/11 attacks that we can use to live more safely going forward?


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.