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Why did Obama choose to “stand down” in Benghazi?

As John and Scott point out, the CIA has issued a statement making it clear that “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need [in Benghazi]; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” That statement surely was issued with the approval, and presumably at the direction, of the CIA’s director, General Petraeus.

Who, then, made the several decisions denying help to the Americans in Benghazi who needed it? Who, initially, told CIA to “stand down” in face of the attack? Who decided that American defense forces an hour or two away in Southern Europe would not be deployed?

Bill Kristol argues that, at least with respect to not sending in the military, the decision must have been made by President Obama. Given what was at stake – the safety of Americans, including an ambassador, in the face of an attack by hostile forces – Kristol surely is right. It is inconceivable that none of the key actors — Secretary of Defense Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, and General Petraeus — failed to present to Obama the decision of how to respond. And if Obama failed to make a decision, that would be more damning than making the wrong one.

Kristol goes on to ask: “When and why—and based on whose counsel obtained in what meetings or conversations—did President Obama decide against sending in military assets to help the Americans in need?”

The key question is “why.”

Leon Panetta has provided an answer. He says “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.” At one level, this answer doesn’t work. He and the others involved did know the essence of what was going on, and they did have real time information.

At another level, Panetta’s statement provides a window into the thinking at the White House that day. Although the administration knew, in general, what was going on, there was much uncertainly in Benghazi. We didn’t know for sure what the outcome of the attack on our personnel would be; we didn’t know whether military forces, if deployed, would have succeeded in saving them; we didn’t know how many of our rescuers would have been killed; and we didn’t know (as far as I can tell) what Libya’s reaction to the use of large-scale use of American military force would be.

Faced with uncertainty, Obama apparently opted for caution, hoping that somehow the CIA contingent from Tripoli, aided perhaps by Libyan forces, would save the situation.

This is just the decision one would expect from Obama. By temperament, he is a non-interventionist and (except when pet domestic policies are in play) a non-risk taker. He was highly cognizant of the consequences of a failed U.S. military operation in Libya, including, I suspect, the electoral consequences in an election that he believed on September 11 he was winning fairly handily.

Let’s also remember that, although Obama decided to approve the raid that killed bin Laden, his team apparently considered this (and his campaign has promoted it as) a difficult decision. Bill Clinton and Joe Biden praise Obama’s alleged courage on this occasion, pointing to the adverse consequences to Obama of a failed mission against bin Laden.

If the decision to kill an unsuspecting and poorly defended bin Laden – America’s enemy number 1 for a decade – was difficult for the Obama administration to make, then the odds were always against a decision to fly our military blind into harm’s way in Benghazi in response to situation whose precise contours weren’t well known. Obama’s decision not to intervene was likely less about “the fog of war” than about fear of the fog of war.

In hindsight, Obama made the wrong decision. The extent to which he should be criticized for the decision is difficult to assess because we don’t know all of the information he had at the time the decision had to be made. Perhaps the decision was a reasonable one to make at that time. But let’s keep in mind that our inability to assess this is due mainly to the administration’s unwillingness to speak about the decision and the surrounding events.

Voters, then, must assess the administration’s handling of Benghazi with limited information. But we do know this: (1) the administration erred grievously by leaving open our mission in Benghazi while turning down requests for more security, (2) the administration made the wrong decision on the day of the attack by not bringing our military to bear, a decision consistent with Obama’s instincts, and (3) the administration has not been forthcoming or honest in its discussion of Benghazi after the fact.

These facts, without more, present a serious indictment of Obama.

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