What separated the great Athenian tragedian Sophocles from dozens of his contemporaries — now mere names attached to fragments and quotations — were his unmatched characters, an Ajax, Antigone, or Oedipus whose proverbially fatal flaws ultimately led to their own self-destruction.
The Libyan plot is Sophoclean to the core: the heroism of outnumbered Americans who chose to confront a deadly enemy, and were killed and wounded in the defense of their endangered comrades — while the world’s greatest military hesitated to use its power against a ragtag militia to save them. Bureaucrats ignored not only pleas for beefed-up security before the attack, but also more requests that followed during the assault for reinforcement. A concocted story about a culpable obscure video gave opportunity for the administration to brag about their cosmopolitan multiculturalism as they damned the unhinged filmmaker and, in doing so, systemically lied about the real terrorist culprits of the killings.
The strange thing about Libya is not so much who lied, but rather the question of whether anyone has yet told the whole truth. When American diplomatic personnel are murdered abroad, an administration usually is vehement in blaming likely suspects; I cannot remember a single incident, however, when our government ignored those most likely responsible to focus on others least likely to be culpable. Once the election is over, and reporters no longer feel any remorse about hurting the reelection chances of Barack Obama, perhaps some of their usual incentives to crack open a cover-up will reassert themselves.
In Sophoclean terms, hubris (arrogance) — often due to a character flaw (amartia) — leads to atê (excess and self-destructive recklessness) that in turn earns nemesis (divine retribution). In that tragic sense, an overweening Obama must have known that — despite the Drone killings — al-Qaeda was far from impotent. And it was not wise, as Obama once himself warned, to high-five the bin Laden raid and leak to the world the details — knowing as he did that bin Laden’s death was not his trophy alone (or indeed a trophy at all) — but better left an unspoken collective effort of military bravery and the dividend of the often derided Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols that Obama had both damned and then embraced. Ironically (another good Greek word), it was probably not so much an obscure video, but the constant chest-thumping about the grisly end of Osama that infuriated the al-Qaeda affiliates. Nothing, after all, is quite so dangerous as talking loudly while carrying a small stick.
Meanwhile, Obama would continue to bask in the removal of Gaddafi, but shirk the hard, dirty work of securing the postbellum tribal landscape. Chaos on the ground in Libya logically ensued — and yet was ignored, as the intervention had to be frozen in amber as an ideal operation. That narrative was again ironic, given that Obama had been among the most vocal in pointing out the vast abyss from George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” to the Iraq insurgency.
Because Obama now cannot explain how his staff and subordinates watched a real-time video and did not react as most Americans would have responded, he is saddled with a long, drawn-out tragic dilemma — knowing that the predetermined end will prove bad and so avoiding it brings only temporary relief. Americans can deal with stormed embassies and lost ambassadors — but not their commander in chief of the world’s most deadly military watching real-time videos of the carnage before going to bed to prep for a campaign stop in Las Vegas (a city Obama himself once preached should be avoided). Either an administration discloses or does not disclose — but why, the public will ask, leak the covert details of the cyber-war against Iran, the Osama mission, and the Predator hit protocols, but not inform the public how our own were murdered? All that is hubris and simply asks too much of the public.
Then we come to Vice President Joe Biden, who serially bragged about the president’s bold decision to go after bin Laden. He clearly lied in his debate with Paul Ryan when he asserted that “we weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security again” — given all the contradicting evidence of direct appeals from the consulate and ambassador. Yet Biden sadly has became a sort of comedic court jester rather than a tragic figure. As a candidate, he made racial slurs about the president and crudely joked about immigrants from India — and thought FDR addressed the nation on television as president in 1929. Then as vice president, Biden has accused his opponents of wanting to reinstate the shackles of slavery, is chronically confused about what state he is in at any given time, and blurts out weird things that suggest mental confusion. So ironically, of all the characters of the Libyan tragedy, Biden by his very buffoonery is alone exempt from criticism: we expect him not to tell the truth about the consulate, because he cannot distinguish the truth about almost anything. He is a jester, an entertainer, not a serious person from whom we expect veracity. “That’s just old Joe being old Joe” means that Biden can say almost anything untrue about Libya and no one cares. That Joe “put y’all back in chains” Biden is vice president should itself be tragic, but so far it has proved more a comic farce.
For Secretary of State Clinton, her awkward tenure at State was nearing a suitable end — at least from the point of view of her reviving her dormant political agenda. Whether the president won or lost in 2012 would have no bearing on her 2016 presidential ambitions. Whether she left nobly or under a cloud most certainly would. Despite the downside of her job — outflanked by regional czars, her political independence forfeited, and her spouse’s vast income curtailed — for four years Hillary had kept in the news and largely navigated the Obama labyrinth on a safe course for 2016.
Perhaps no longer. For still largely unknown reasons, she or her staff ignored repeated, clear, and detailed prior warnings that the consulate and embassy were vulnerable — and largely defenseless against just the sort of attacks that would kill the ambassador. To the degree we have versions of some of the ambassador’s cables, the warnings all read hauntingly prescient. After the attack commenced, the State Department froze and went into a figurative fetal position — either assuming the CIA would protect the consulate, or that the Obama successful Libyan narrative should not be endangered by a full-scale Black Hawk Down intervention. Or it was fed by vain hopes that someone, somehow would make it all just go away. “Twisting — slowly twisting in the wind” was John Ehrlichman’s Watergate sick parlance to describe the cruel Nixon administration treatment of former FBI head Patrick Gray, but it also describes well enough Hillary’s next 90 days or so on the job. She is in a tragic dilemma: she wants to leave the Obama mess but cannot as long as she suspects that only her continued presence on the job wards off administration efforts to make her a fall person.
Susan Rice and James Clapper are minor, insignificant figures, but ones who both tested nemesis one too many times. The former helped dream up the Libyan intervention, along with Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton (would that Hillary could now take back that crude boast, “We came, we saw, Gaddafi died”). Rice was eager that her previous behind-the-scenes labors should receive due credit on the eve of the exit of Secretary Clinton. She got her chance with Libya, played it to the full, and sadly made a fool of herself. She could have fairly summed up what the administration did not know, and done so perhaps once or twice on television. But perhaps her hubris drove her to spin an elaborate scenario of protestors mad over an uncouth video — and not once, but emphatically five times on a single Sunday. If an investigation follows, she will probably identify those who provided her with such narratives that simply could not be true, and were known to be untrue at the time.
James Clapper, in terms of Washington rules, had gotten away with quite a lot. He was a Bush appointee promoted by the new administration, after making the necessary adjustments that such a transformation requires. He seemed strangely clueless on television when told of a foiled London terrorist operation. He almost alone claimed that Gaddafi would not fall. He even more singularly assured us that the Muslim Brotherhood was secular. And he somehow trumped all of that by promulgating the Muslim anger over a video narrative — despite a drone video sending back real-time film of a terrorist attack. How he had so far avoided nemesis is a mystery, but it is no mystery that he will no longer.
David Petraeus is in a classically tragic role — the sole character who combined sterling intelligence and military expertise that would seem to have been critical in responding to just this sort of terrorist assault. At first report, the only uplifting element of the entire debacle seems to have been incomplete reports of some CIA and private contractor help sent to the consulate, and then a tardy CIA posse dispatched to the annex. But those facts are lost amid rumors and leaks that the intelligence community is also culpable (why would a private contractor have to disobey CIA orders in order to attempt to save an ambassador?) — both in not predicting the danger (or not listening to those who did) and in not addressing the attack at the embassy properly, and in not publicly providing answers to public concern.
Of course, Petraeus also must have known when he selflessly took the job that he was descending from Olympus to assume control of a bureau infamous for tarnishing the reputations of almost all who had tried to harness it — an agency whose failures surface in the media, but whose successes usually remain classified, and whose director during scandal and catastrophe is usually the first to be blamed and last to be exonerated. In a fair world, perhaps Petraeus, not Martin Dempsey, should have been chairman of the Joint Chiefs, given his salvation of Iraq. Instead, he was dispatched to a difficult mission in Afghanistan and asked to restore calm, but without a desperate George W. Bush as his commander in chief, willing to wage all to reclaim a nearly lost war. From what little we know so far, Petraeus was not necessarily culpable for providing too little security or sending too little help when the consulate was attacked, but from deliberate leaks a narrative seems to be emerging that he should be held culpable for something. Yet in a larger sense, we know that principled people who go to work for this administration often do not end up well — and so wonder to what degree Petraeus himself is in a position to concede that dilemma, and the consequences to come when the final act of the tragedy of Libya will be at last fully aired.