Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can put politics aside and acknowledge a hard fact: On Sept. 11 of this year, America was defeated by al-Qaida in the Battle of Benghazi.
About this battle many questions remain. The media and Congress have a responsibility to get answers -- not only because we should know the truth, not only to assign blame, but also to learn from failure. At the very least, we should try to understand what lessons our enemies have learned -- because they will apply those lessons in the future.
It is possible to lose many battles and still win a war. It is possible to win many battles and still lose a war. What is perilous is to misunderstand your enemies and underestimate the threats they pose. This was the case prior to Sept. 11, 2001, as Condoleezza Rice candidly admitted to the 9/11 Commission in 2004. "The terrorists were at war with us," she said, "but we were not yet at war with them."
On Sept. 11, 2012, the situation was similar. Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation and CNN's national security analyst, had been saying for months that al-Qaida was "defeated," a thesis endorsed by, among others, retired Lt. Col. Thomas Lynch III, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University.
President Barack Obama made this claim a central theme of his re-election campaign. Post-Benghazi, in his final stump speech, in Des Moines, he reassured voters that "the war in Iraq has ended, the war in Afghanistan is ending. Osama bin Laden is dead!"
But in Afghanistan, we have not broken the Taliban; in Iraq, al-Qaida has been increasing the tempo of its suicide attacks; in Syria, al-Qaida is playing an increasingly significant role in the civil war; in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is far from beaten; in Mali, al-Qaida has taken control of vast territories; in Iran, a regime whose ideology is no less anti-American than al-Qaida's continues to develop nuclear weapons despite tightening sanctions.
According to The New York Times, in the months leading up to the "attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration received intelligence reports that Islamic extremist groups were operating training camps in the mountains near Benghazi and that some of the fighters were 'al-Qaida leaning.'"
That's an oddly tentative way to refer to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an affiliate; Ansar al-Sharia, recently described by U.S government researchers as a group that "has increasingly embodied al-Qaida's presence in Libya"; and the Muhammad Jamal network, which openly defends al-Qaida and, to quote Muhammad Jamal, "all jihad movements in the world. ..." These three groups were primary participants in the Benghazi attacks, American officials have said.
AFRICOM, the American regional combatant command for Africa, established in 2007, had drones monitoring the terrorist training camps. But those drones were unarmed, as were the drones at the Sigonella naval air station in Sicily, a short flight from Benghazi. Had there been armed drones to deploy, would it have made a difference?
Perhaps: According to Fox News' Jennifer Griffin, who has done some of the best reporting on this story, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty had laser rangefinders on the roof of the building, where they were attempting to hold out against the terrorists. Using those rangefinders, they had pinpointed the coordinates of the mortars firing at them, and requested air support. That support never arrived and, eventually, mortars struck the roof, killing both men.
What's to stop "al-Qaida leaning" groups from replicating the Benghazi model elsewhere? What can be done to prevent jihadist training camps from springing up like weeds across North Africa and the broader Middle East and training wave after wave of bomb makers, suicide bombers and guerrillas? Are these threats even being taken seriously? I'm not confident.
The controversy over Benghazi initially focused on the mischaracterization of the recent 9/11 attacks as a protest against "Islamophobia" that spun out of control. Next, it became a debate over who should be blamed for what was clearly an inadequate response. Increasingly, however, it appears that insufficient preparation made impotence inevitable. And the cause of that may be this simple: Too many otherwise smart and powerful people can't come to terms with the reality that a serious, if unconventional, war is being waged -- a war that has not ended and will not end any time soon.
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.)