The next Benghazi

The next Benghazi could occur in many places: Tunis. Cairo. Sanaa. Karachi. Or a less obvious place such as one that was attacked by terrorists in years past, such as Buenos Aires, Jakarta or Manila. It could be where Iran is seeking a stronger foothold, say in Caracas or La Paz.

Though we don’t know where radical Islamists will strike next, we do know that conditions leading to the Benghazi attack haven’t changed. More importantly, President Obama remains ill prepared — and now for four more years, no less.

We recently learned what the White House knew in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks on our diplomatic posts around the globe. A State Department cable sent Aug. 16 warned that the Benghazi consulate would be unable to stop a “coordinated attack.” Yet Team Obama declined repeated requests for additional security, despite more than 200 al Qaeda-related incidents in Libya.

Even after rocket-propelled grenades and mortars rained down on the U.S. compound, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, for the next two weeks the Obama administration sent mixed signals, mostly blaming a “spontaneous reaction” to an obscure video on YouTube watched by practically no one.

As botched as Mr. Obama’s tactical efforts have been, his overarching strategy toward the Arab Spring has been even worse, contributing to the regional chaos we see today.

Throwing America’s full weight behind the “Arab Street” in places like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen resulted in toppling three long-term allied governments, and one toothless Moammar Gadhafi, paving the way for Islamists to take over those countries.

It’s as if Mr. Obama believes the utopian vision that if only nations had democracies, they would want peace. Sounds nice for a model United Nations class, but it’s not how the world works.

Anyone who has ever been to the Middle East knows that America is widely unpopular there, apart from things like Hollywood movies, blue jeans and Coca Cola. Part of that angst was fueled by American support for the autocrats. Because of the political realities in the Middle East, any sudden “ballot box” alternative was Islamists — the only organized force outside the governments.

A Pew Global Attitudes poll from 2010 showed only 17 percent of Egyptians viewed the U.S. favorably, 20 percent liked al Qaeda, and close to 60 percent were pro-Islamist. While there are also modern, secular, pro-business, pro-Western people in the Middle East who we should fully support, such as Google’s Wael Ghonim, they have about as much clout as the Green Party or Constitution Party here in America.

Whatever happened to the America that worked tirelessly to aid those struggling against communism in Eastern Europe? Those efforts toppled the Berlin Wall, the entire Soviet bloc, won the Cold War and ushered in freedom and prosperity for hundreds of millions ever since. We must do the same for those opposed to Islamic tyranny and misogyny in the Middle East.

The Benghazi attackers, Ansar al Shariah and al Qaeda, don’t rule any governments. Yet the Islamists who took power in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere share their overarching, anti-U.S. philosophy.

Islamist governments’ security forces remain in shambles from the Arab Spring uprisings. They don’t have any experience running countries. Even if they took a harder line against terrorists, they wouldn’t be able to adequately protect American diplomatic posts — even if they wanted to. This leaves the job up to Mr. Obama, and he hasn’t been up to the task.

Al Qaeda may have lost its leader in Osama bin Laden, but it hasn’t lost its desire to kill Americans. Like in Benghazi, it seeks small-scale, yet symbolic victories that can embarrass our country and attract followers and funds for jihad.

We’ve already recently seen smaller attacks against our diplomatic posts in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. As the World Trade Center attacks of 1993 and 2001 showed, al Qaeda likes to come back and finish the job.

The next Benghazi may not just be limited to the Middle East. Islamists have attacked every continent except Antarctica, even reaching Australians in Bali. Anywhere their networks thrive, borders are porous and our defenses are weak, we’re vulnerable.

One journalist friend from Lebanon asked me how the attack in Benghazi possibly could have happened, painstakingly describing how difficult it is to get anywhere near the fortress-like U.S. Embassy in Beirut, site of a past attack. “Well, we learn from our mistakes,” I said. We should not be building secure facilities only in countries where we have already been attacked.

Let’s hope only this administration learns quickly after the disgrace in Libya. If we can’t guarantee the safety of American diplomats overseas, we need to start shutting down high-threat embassies and consulates today. We must never forget Benghazi and collectively ensure that Mr. Obama does not, either.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the office of the secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration.

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