Sophocles in Benghazi

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.