In the rush to paper over its failures in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—which claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens—the Obama Administration seems unaware that these are fundamental rather than merely anomalous.
In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that "In the wake of the attack, the military has examined how to improve its rapid response forces," specifically by "adding special operations teams of roughly 10 troops to ships carrying larger Marine Expeditionary Units." MEUs shipborne in amphibious ready groups usually number 2,200 marines in special forces, reconnaissance, armored reconnaissance, armor, amphibious assault, infantry, artillery, engineer and aviation battalions, companies, and platoons. They can get over the beach fast, and they fight like hell.
On March 21, 2011, during Operation Odyssey Dawn, an American F15 went down in Libya. Immediately after the Mayday, the 26th MEU started rescue operations from the USS Kearsarge, and a short time later two of its Harrier fighter jets, two CH53 helicopters, and two MV22 Ospreys were at the scene, with more than a hundred Marines. Hundreds more might easily have arrived if required. Forces like this could have shattered the assault in Benghazi in minutes. Adding a few to such echelons rich in special forces would have little relevance. Fine in itself, the proposal is an obfuscation. The issue is not the composition of already capable MEUs but rather that one was not available when the attack took place.
From World War II onward, the U.S. Sixth Fleet stabilized the Mediterranean region and protected American interests there with the standard deployment, continued through 2008, of a carrier battle group, three hunter-killer submarines, and an amphibious ready group with its MEU or equivalent. But in the first year of the Obama presidency this was reduced to one almost entirely unarmed command ship. No MEU could respond to Benghazi because none was assigned to, or by chance in, the Mediterranean.
Whereas during most of the Obama years the United States has kept one ship in the Mediterranean, during World War I Japan deployed 14 destroyers and a cruiser there. But today—with the Muslim Brotherhood watching over the Egyptian powder keg, terrorist warlords murdering our diplomats in Libya, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb reaching up from the Sahel into the Mediterranean littoral, instability in Tunisia, Bedouin kidnappers in the Sinai, Hamas rockets streaming from Gaza, Lebanon riding the Hezbollah tiger, Jordan imperilled, and a civil war raging in Syria—what possible reason could there be for a powerful Sixth Fleet?
Benghazi is a lesson in failings of probity writ small and large. Our policy, relentlessly pursued by the president, is to disarm. As China and Russia invigorate their defense-industrial bases, we diminish ours. We are stripping our nuclear deterrent to and beyond the point where it will encourage proliferation among opportunistic states, endow China with parity, and make a first strike against us feasible.
In Korea, we depended upon tactical nuclear weapons, then pulled back after the North deployed chemical and biological weapons to check them. The obvious course was to build up conventional forces, but instead we cut them drastically. Although now with precision-guided munitions we can pick off much of what the North has, it will retain sufficient mass to make war's outcome uncertain and inflict millions of civilian casualties.
We hide behind nearly toothless Europeans who provide skittish diplomatic cover rather than substantive military support. With reduced naval, air, and ground forces, we bluff in the South China Sea, nurture adventurism in quarters of which we are not even aware, yet, and prove that though our diplomats may beg for protection, terrorists can spend eight hours attacking an American diplomatic post with utter impunity.
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One finds in Charles Arnold-Baker's Companion to British History (1996) the telling lines: "In the absence of most of the troops, there was an insurrection…. Colchester was burned; the IXth Legion…ambushed and mostly destroyed."
Would that the president, or Hillary Clinton, possibly the next president, comprehend this. Clinton's record air-mile tenure as secretary of state, in which restless ambition was the cause of unambitious restlessness, brought one of the most confused approaches to the international system ever foisted upon the long suffering Republic, unless you think donating Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood was Napoleonic genius. Was her January performance before the Senate Benghazi hearings, in which she accepted responsibility while at the same time angrily rejecting it, worthy more of the Queen of Hearts or the Cheshire Cat? Her husband, famously confused even about the meaning of is, always kept an MEU in the Mediterranean.
History and the present tell us unambiguously that we require vast reserves of strength used judiciously, sparingly where possible, overwhelmingly when appropriate, precisely, quickly, and effectively. Now we have vanishing and insufficient strength used injudiciously, promiscuously, slowly, and ineffectively.
Since 1972, the Democratic Party has reflexively advocated the reduction of American military power, even at the defining junctures of the Cold War. The George W. Bush Administration spent a well intentioned two terms more or less switching out Sunni for Shiite in Iraq, poking hornets in Afghanistan, destabilizing Pakistan, and decapitalizing the armed forces. The Tea Party, knowing only the importance of fiscal discipline, does not understand the risks it is willing to accept to national security. And to the extent the current administration actually perceives the need to provide for defense, it always seems proudly to decide not to.
Do Americans understand that war and death abhor a vacuum of strength and will rush in when weakness opens a place for them? Do we care? At the moment, the power of decision rests with those who don't.
For the sake of comfort and illusory promises, a false idea of goodness, and the incoherent remnants of New Left ideology, we as a people have chosen drastically to diminish our powers of action in the world even as they bear upon our self defense. Having established and advertised this, we will rue the day we did. Benghazi, a brightly illustrative miniature, is only a symbol of things to come.