11/05/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Benghazi: Standing Up (Not Down) for the Rule of Law

In Thomas Ricks new book, The Generals, we learn that few Generals after WWII have been relieved of duty for combat ineffectiveness, or really much else beyond sexual harassment. This, says Ricks, left the generals largely unaccountable, but worse, unprepared to effectively handle military crises. President Obama in announcing the resignation of General Curtis Ham the AFRICOM commander with oversight responsibility during the tragic killing of American diplomats in Benghazi is thus returning to an older model of strict accountability -- an accountability that has the head of the organization's head whether or not General Ham had any personal fault, which no one has suggested.

A Real Commander in Chief

Returning to a high standard of military accountability is thus another reason to favor President Obama's re-election. Admittedly, imposing a strict liability standard on a commander who is without personal failing seems jarring at first. In this regard, the heightened standard of oversight by the Commander in Chief is quite opposite that of President George W. Bush who more than once publicly explained his actions in Iraq or Afghanistan as dictated by the advice of the Joint Chiefs. The consequence of that relaxed presidential supervision was enormous waste, as the military men say, of "life and treasure." Governor Romney's plans for a ballooning of the Defense budget and his talismanic use of "peace through strength," is like other aspects of his campaign, vague, but they suggest a return to the deferential, blank check Bush years.

The number of U.S. casualties (dead and wounded) in Iraq approaches 31,000. Iraq cost the taxpayer $10 billion per month; whereas, on paper at least, there were no US casualties in the Libyan uprising and NATO will be reimbursing the US over $200 million for US support of the transitional national government in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.

The candidates did not have occasion to speak to matters of military accountability in the debates. Instead, debate moderators focused narrowly on the minute details of the assassination of my friend and fellow diplomat, Chris Stevens and foreign service officer,, Sean Smith, and two diplomatic security personnel, Glen Doherty and Ty Woods.

It's not clear Governor Romney ever understood why the President grew stern with him in the second debate when Romney suggested these men may have been consciously put in harm's way. The President rightly defended the members of his team for their candor in reporting what they knew as they knew it (classified information aside). We haven't thankfully turned the conduct of military operations or diplomacy over to Wikileak purveyor Julian Assange. Our chances of successfully intervening anywhere to meet especially terrorist threat would go down to near zero if we did. The importance of meeting that threat is especially grave, and likely to require some secrecy, whenever terror's volatility might be mixing with an unstable possessor of nuclear weapon (Pakistan) or the materials necessary to produce it (Iran). The President's foreign policy has been well aimed at using sanctions to keep Iran from acquiring such weapons and at least maintaining open channels of communication with the multiple and competing powers in Pakistan. Those open channels coupled with a deliberately low profile and newly rigorous confidential attitude at the CIA fostered by former General David Petraeus in all probability assisted the ability to utilize our own human intelligence to end Osama bin Laden's challenge to worldwide security.

As a member of the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama early recognized the irresponsible borrowing necessary to occupy Iraq together with the lack of justification to be there in the first place. The President kept his promise and moved the remaining thousands of troops out. In Afghanistan, the President gave long reflection to the military recommendation for a temporary enhancement of our troop commitment. In the shadow of the massive Iraqi error, President Obama was not about to give a George W-style nod to the generals. The Constitution places the military under civilian control. Instead, the President reached a Solomonic conclusion: an enhancement of troops, largely reflecting the sensitivity between Afghanistan and the geographic proximity to dangerous regions in Pakistan that attract the worst elements of al Qaeda and their offspring. Nevertheless, the President held the reign tightly; the troops would come home by a date certain. The date was not arbitrary but respectful of a reasonable estimate of time the commanders' needed to be effective.

Romney and the GOP don't get it

In light of the above, let us assess the latest, wild-eyed pro-Romney material in criticism of President Obama. As the outrageous Romney story goes, no effort was made to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his staff. If public libels were still actionable, surely the President would have a prima facie case. What does the public record actually suggest? Most likely that the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, in consultation with the CIA's Patraeus and aided by fragmentary drone surveillance concluded that intervention with the equipment available would be at too great a risk to additional American lives and would have directly endangered civilians. Is it likely that on the scene that CIA personnel who were close daily friends with those at risk were gun-ho to intervene regardless of risk or adequate weaponry? You bet; these are red-blooded Americans after all. But effective diplomatic security, like other military action, depends on following lawful orders. The danger to civilians alone meant that under the laws of war, a futile rescue mission could not be undertaken.

There is doubt in the public record whether the commanding general, Curtis Ham, concurred with the decision presumably made by Secretary Panetta and concurred in by Petraeus. In terms of the Presidential principal of holding the commanding officer strictly liable, it doesn't matter. Strict liability is strict liability, and in any event, General Ham was himself subordinate.

In an appropriate executive (closed) session, Senate and House foreign relations and the intelligence committees should do a thorough post-mortem. What is irresponsible is for Romney and company to address these claims on the stump based upon rumor and innuendo. It was hardly surprising that an earlier version of this tale angered the President in the second debate. I can also tell you personally from conversation with Chris Stevens' family and friends at his memorial service, the effort to achieve last minute political gain from the circumstances of Ambassador Stevens death is profoundly hurtful and disrespectful to the memory of their brother.

Are there any facts in this story?

What is true is that the White House routinely announces appointments and retirements. General Curtis Ham had a highly honorable 40 year career. It is unworthy of Mr. Romney to assume that because he is apparently exiting a few years before his maximum pension vested, that General Ham was fired. The Romney supporter claim that Ham was wrongly fired is an interference with oversight responsibility given to the President. It surely troubles the President greatly that the military's strategic planning did not place men and equipment within the needed range to meet a crisis of the type that tragically killed our diplomats, including Chris Stevens whom the President and Secretary of State came to know well. All four were patriots serving their nation's interests in Libya. To fault the president for switching out General Ham for General David Rodriquez to give emphasis to the importance of military accountability is nuts. It also plays right into the hands of the terrorists. Because the killings took place on 9/11 and because we are in the midst of a tightly fought political campaign, the subsequent and more detailed account of the two-pronged attack suggest that 9/11/2012 in Libya was an effort by al Qaeda terrorists to strike back at the US in revenge for bin Laden and perhaps influence the U.S. election outcome in a way that disfavored the Commander in Chief who put an end to Osama's defiant bravado that had been mocking us since 2001.