A Crisis of Conscience in Benghazi

11/29/2012 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

The deadly terrorist attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya represents not just a failure of intelligence. It symbolizes the failure to face unpleasant truths about the hatreds unleashed by corrupted religion. Like the failure of U.S. policies in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, it is made worse by a troubled conscience -- in this case the uneasy conscience of Susan Rice.

As the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Rice was dispatched by the White House on Sept. 16 to explain the Benghazi assault to the American people. On five separate news programs she delivered the same unambiguous, uncompromising message: the violence that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans was not an act of terrorism, but rather a "spontaneous" mob reaction to an anti-Islam video on YouTube.

It was a demonstrably false claim. First, the administration ignored pleas for greater security for its diplomats in Libya, following a string of terrorist attacks in the region. Second, CIA agents knew immediately that Islamist radicals planned the assault. "The intelligence community assessed from the very beginning that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," a spokesman at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) told CBS News.

For weeks now, President Obama has insisted that the CIA -- on its own initiative and without the knowledge of the White House -- purged references to "al-Qaeda" and "terrorism" from the talking points given to Rice. Who deleted the references to terrorism? No one knows. Why would the CIA deliberately deceive the White House and the America people about a matter of national security? We are not told.

What explains this manifestly fictional narrative of events in Libya?

Although President Obama has pursued and killed a number of top-ranking terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, he has mostly ignored the indispensable role of religion in inspiring their atrocities. Instead, the administration has labored obsessively to avoid offending Muslim sensitivities. Nowhere in the National Security Strategy, for example, do we find the words "Islamic terrorism," "radical Islam" or "Islamic jihad." It's as though the terrorist threats facing the United States are the result of unemployment, poverty, global climate change or, for that matter, Justin Bieber.

Such dissembling informs the Obama administration's conclusion that its actions have "decimated" al Qaeda, when in fact al Qaeda and its affiliates are rushing to fill the power vacuums created by the Arab Spring. Exhibit A is Libya, where extremist elements, heavily armed, have taken advantage of the post-war confusion. Yet Libya has been touted as the primo example of Team Obama's foreign policy prowess: a tidy war that rescued a civilian population from a tyrant and ushered in the forces of democratic renewal.

No cynicism is required to understand that the White House had the strongest political motive to edit the CIA account of the Benghazi attack: to deflect criticism of its failed Libya policy just weeks before a tight presidential race.

Enter Susan Rice, the perfect political creature to promote this false narrative. When she was in the Clinton administration at the National Security Council, Rice stunned her colleagues during the 1994 Rwanda genocide by asking what the effect would be on the November (mid-term) election if the administration used the word "genocide" but failed to intervene. Samantha Power, author of "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," and a special advisor to Barack Obama, has called Rice a bystander to the carnage.

That's putting it gently. Rice worked quietly with other members of the Clinton administration to manipulate public opinion by removing words such as "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" from official State Department and CIA memos. For Rice (and for Bill Clinton, the most poll-driven president in modern political history), the supreme concern was to shield themselves from any political fallout from the genocide -- not to stop it. In the end, the United States remained indifferent as 800,000 Tutsis, mostly civilians, were hacked to death.

"There was such a huge disconnect between the logic of each of the decisions we took along the way during the genocide," Rice later admitted, "and the moral consequences of the decisions taken collectively."

Here is the rationalizing voice of the craven political appointee, a voice that Rice has brought with her into the Libya crisis. Soon after the Libyan revolt, she became a fierce advocate for U.S. intervention to protect civilians and bring about regime change. As if to atone for her misdeeds over Rwanda, she remains committed to a narrative of success in Libya, no matter what the facts are on the ground.

It can be argued that a similar dynamic of denial afflicted the Bush administration after the invasion of Iraq. In June 2005, more than two years after Saddam's regime was toppled, a growing insurgency of Sunni Muslims, radical jihadists and al Qaeda operatives were killing U.S.-led coalition forces. American troops were not being greeted as "liberators." Yet this was the storyline perpetuated by Vice President Dick Cheney, who served under Georg H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War and regretted leaving Saddam in power and allowing him to crush a Shiite uprising.

Despite massive evidence to the contrary, Cheney saw "major progress" in Iraq and a swift resolution of the conflict. "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." It was nonsense talk. In reality, the insurgency was gaining strength. Most analysts agree that Bush's decision to inject another 20,000 American troops into Iraq in 2007 prevented the country from descending into utter chaos. Like Team Obama, the Bush administration failed to reckon with the remorseless violence of a perverse religious ideology.

In the case of Susan Rice, the failures appear insurmountable. Although President Obama wants her confirmed as his next Secretary of State, even boosterish media such as the New York Times admit that a confirmation vote for her in the Senate would be "a toxic affair." The problem for Rice is not only that she has imbibed the administration's agnosticism about the bond between religious belief and terrorism. Her flawed narratives are compounded by a lingering sense of guilt. "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again," Rice said, "I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."

It seems likely that Rice will indeed go down in flames, in a tragedy of dramatic inaction, taking her political demons with her.

Joseph Loconte, Ph.D., teaches American foreign policy at the King's College in New York City and is the author of 'The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt' (Thomas Nelson, 2012).