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posted: 10/15/2012 5:00 AM

At war with no leader

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The beginning of congressional hearings on the Benghazi debacle revealed an administration with much to explain and perhaps something to hide.

At a minimum, the State Department did not take adequate precautions in reaction to mounting threats after urgent requests by officials on the ground. This was a failure of judgment. It was followed by a failure of candor. Senior administration officials gave misleading accounts of the attack for days -- which was days after others in the administration must have known those accounts were misleading.

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It is impossible for me to imagine U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton freelancing the false claim that the Benghazi attack was the spontaneous response to a YouTube video instead of being a terrorist attack. So who briefed them with bad information? And why? Those are the loose threads in need of pulling.

But this is more than a scandal; it is a symptom. This is an administration that instinctively turns to any artifice -- any desperate, dubious claim -- rather than talk about an ongoing, escalating global conflict with radical Islamist groups. The likely involvement of al-Qaida in the Libyan attack is part of a larger story. The threats arising from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are familiar. But al-Qaida is also rebuilding in Iraq, where its size has doubled over the last year. While al-Qaida's organizational "core" has been weakened, its ideology and appeal are durable. Affiliates are adept at exploiting local grievances, particularly in unstable regions of Africa. Boko Haram conducts church attacks in Nigeria. Al-Shabab battles African Union troops in Somalia. Islamists associated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb now control much of Mali.

President Obama's response is, to put it mildly, paradoxical. He is perfectly willing to pull the trigger in a drone strike when he thinks it is useful. But he is strangely reluctant to describe the continuing terrorist threat in public. At their recent convention, Democrats danced a jig on Osama bin Laden's grave. But this was treated as an achievement of history -- like the execution of Tojo -- not as one victory in a continuing struggle. As a State Department official once put it, "The war on terror is over" since "we have killed most of al-Qaida."

There are several possible explanations for this attitude, beginning with the rawest of politics. Obama wants to be seen as the ender of wars, not as the sponsor of an apparently endless one. So it is useful to assert that al-Qaida is strategically defeated and that the tide of war is receding. Admitting there are new fronts in the war on terror undermines this theory. So it becomes attractive to blame an obscure, laughably crude movie for the Benghazi attack.

A related political calculation may also come into play. A portion of Obama's political base is near the limit of its patience over the drone war -- a particularly aggressive form of global pre-emption. A few, such as Conor Friedersdorf, are in open revolt over Obama's "cowardly, immoral and illegal policy." A more aggressive public stance in the war on terror could push more of the left into overt opposition.

It is possible that Obama and his team are themselves ideologically uncomfortable with the war on terror they are compelled to conduct. They took office trying to deliberately reframe that war as a much-reduced contingency operation against al-Qaida. They have found, of course, that the threat of Islamist extremism is much broader than al-Qaida, and that al-Qaida itself is often embedded in other movements. So Obama does what is necessary. But a man of the left may find what is necessary to be distasteful and morally tainted.

The most disturbing of possible explanations for Obama's lack of public leadership in the war on terror concerns Afghanistan. Downplaying the strength of al-Qaida, as well as the ties between al-Qaida and the Taliban, helps make a precipitous American retreat from Afghanistan easier to swallow. This is what CBS correspondent Lara Logan recently called "a major lie."

Whatever the reasons, the results are destructive. The unavoidable disorders of the Arab Spring and the power vacuums of Africa have created an atmosphere hospitable to terrorist threats. But the administration finds this narrative inconvenient -- which leaves the American people unprepared. The problem revealed in Libya is not only incompetence or deception. It is a wartime president who refuses to be a wartime leader.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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