Barack Obama comes to the job of the presidency with no command experience at all. His career included years as an adjunct professor and a community organizer before becoming the senator best known for voting “present” in Illinois. He was never a leader when he was in the U.S. Senate. His experience is chiefly as an agitator against command, not in exercising command itself. The largest effort he had ever run had been his own campaign for president, and it’s debatable how much of that he ran and how much was run for him by his lieutenant, David Axelrod.

Just weeks before the election, the Benghazi attack threatened to undo Obama’s carefully crafted al Qaeda campaign narrative. That night, during the attack, President Barack Obama had no idea what to do. He is not a born or trained commander. With lives and American prestige in his hands, he flinched. He stayed true to his character and voted “present.”

Two debacles of the past were probably foremost in his mind and in the mind of David Axelrod, who was probably involved in decision-making during the attack: Desert One and Mogadishu. Desert One was a U.S. rescue attempt in Iran in 1980 that ended in humiliating failure, and contributed to the building narrative that President Jimmy Carter was not up to the job of the presidency. Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 handed the U.S. military and President Bill Clinton a humiliating public-relations defeat in what turned out to be an early battle against al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden later turned Mogadishu into a rallying point, using it to cast America as a “paper tiger” that would run from a real fight. Both Desert One and Mogadishu happened under Democratic presidents, both began as military rescues, and both were failures. Desert One helped cost President Carter his job. Benghazi threatened to cost Barack Obama his.

The night of the Benghazi attack, Obama had command authority and responsibility in his hands, and he froze. His inexperience in command — he never served in the military, and none of his close cabinet members ever served in the military — and his eye on the election owned his mind. He ordered the stand-down (an order which must ultimately have come from him as the commander-in-chief) to preserve his political narrative as best he could by avoiding any possibility of suffering both an undeniable terrorist attack and a Mogadishu catastrophe on his watch. He chose to let four Americans die rather than risk  sending in any rescue attempt, because the potential political optics were so dire. He chose to blame a movie for the same reason his Defense Department has chosen to call the Ft. Hood massacre “workplace violence” rather than a terrorist attack, which it was. Acknowledging the truth could destroy his precious narrative and cost him the election.

In this theory, then, Panetta, Obama and Clinton actually were communicating during the attack. Axelrod was also involved, which itself should be a scandal as he is not in the national security loop. He is a political adviser. But because of Obama’s actions during the battle and Clinton’s refusals to improve security before, they have chosen to lie to preserve their own respective political positions. Panetta, ever the party man, has played along to defend the Democratic Party from any consequences if Axelrod’s role is exposed. If they acknowledge that they were communicating during the attack, they acknowledge that Obama was in command and that he ultimately failed and left four Americans to die. Or, they acknowledge that he misread the attack so badly that he never bothered to authorize a rescue until it was too late, then ordered a stand-down to avoid a Mogadishu situation. They are covering up their collective failure to secure the U.S. mission before the attack, they are covering up Obama’s failure to send forces to the rescue that night, and they used the movie to prop up Obama’s crumbling al Qaeda narrative long enough to get past the election, which after all was only a few weeks away. In at least the latter, they succeeded.

This theory doesn’t account for everything, nor does it attempt to. It doesn’t account for why Stevens was in Benghazi that night, for instance, and it doesn’t account for why Clinton’s State Department left the mission so exposed. It doesn’t account for what the U.S. mission in Benghazi was doing, or whether it was involved in any way in the war in Syria. But it does try to account for Obama’s and Panetta’s and Clinton’s actions that night, which on their face make no sense.