Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Benghazi, Syria, and China’s Aid

by Micah Zenko
September 20, 2013

Attack on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames on September 11, 2012 following an attack on the compount that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other staff members (Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).








Art Swift, “For First Time, American’s Views of Russia Turn Negative,” Gallup, September 18, 2013.

Unfavorable Assad II

(3PA: More Americans, 74%, have an unfavorable view of Congress: http://bit.ly/18dXgS1.)


Admiral James Winnefeld, remarks at the AUSA General Bernard Rogers Lecture Series, Arlington, Virginia, September 18, 2013.

WINNEFELD: Then there are the highly insecure authoritarian states, such as Iran, North Korea, and of course, Syria, including those who murder their own people on a large scale and those who have concluded that obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons are the best insurance policy for their regime.


Cheryl Pellerin, “U.S. Foreign Military Sales Promote Security Cooperation,” American Forces Press Service, September 18, 2013.

Foreign military sales represent the largest percentage of DSCA funds, with $69.1 billion in fiscal 2012, Gilman said, “but $29 billion of that is from the sale of 84 F-15s to Saudi Arabia, along with weapons and training and basing.” He said that going forward, the agency expects about $30 billion a year, with about $25 billion in 2013 sales.


Patt Morrison, “For ‘Buck’ McKeon, It’s Syria or the Sequester,” Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2013.

Q: You believe the U.S. has a “special role” in the world, to “enforce the peace it seeks.” How does that relate to the sequester?

A: The sequester is doing a lot of damage to national security — the readiness of our troops, our men and women in uniform not getting the training they have in the past. Eventually that translates into lives lost. It happened when we entered World War II. Our people weren’t sufficiently prepared, and moving across North Africa, they were like cannon fodder. Korea — we were almost pushed into the ocean before we were able to gear back up, because after every war, we tend to cut back our military.

Q: Shouldn’t we cut back military spending after wars?

A: Yes, but not to the point where we weaken ourselves to invite further aggression. People said we should listen to Eisenhower and beware the military/industrial complex. Eisenhower also said we should always be so strong that nobody dares take us on for fear of annihilation. Ronald Reagan talked about peace through strength. When you cut back to the point where you’re not able to protect yourself and your allies, they have to start creating other alliances.

An ambassador from the Mideast just walked out of here [his office]. He was very concerned. He said when you draw a red line and don’t follow through, then your friends suffer, and I have to agree.


Michael Hoffman, “SOCOM Wants to Deploy MQ-9 Drones to Remote Areas,” Military.com, September 16, 2013.

Air Force Special Operations Command wants to pack up an MQ-9 Reaper in less than eight hours, fly it anywhere in the world aboard a C-17, and then unpack it and have it ready to fly in another eight hours…

Special Operations Command wanted to deliver large drones to places without any infrastructure to offer special operations teams additional intelligences, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage, Elton explained to a crowd at the 2013 Air Force Association’s Conference and Technology Exposition here on Monday.


Interview of Admiral Michael Mullen, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, June 19, 2013.

Q:…Do you agree, Admiral, that it would be inaccurate to say that the four-man team was told to stand down?

A: Yes, they are not told to stand down.

Q: …Mr. Hicks also testified that he was frustrated that a fast-mover, such as an F-16, could not have been sent to Benghazi to either engage militarily or do fast flyovers to perhaps scare adversaries. Obviously I think we’re all sympathetic with that. I think both sides of the committee certainly understood that we wanted jets there yesterday, I think as our ranking member said. Admiral Mullen, as part of the ARB, did you investigate whether the military could have sent fast-mover assets, such as F-16s, to Benghazi on the night of the attack? And, if so, what did you conclude?

A: We did investigate that. And consistent with what I said previously, it was not realistic to think that we could task fast movers, jets, notionally in Aviano, Italy, 2 to 3 hours’ flying time away, without tankers, which were a minimum of 4 hours away in the middle of the night with no previous tasking…The physics of it, the reality of it, it just wasn’t going to happen for 12 to 20 hours. And I validated that in my review when I went to the Pentagon to look at every single asset that was postured in theater, including those jets in Aviano.

Q: At a hearing on February 7th, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether we could have deployed F-16s from Aviano Air Base in Italy…Admiral Mullen, do you agree with General Dempsey’s explanation that there was simply not enough time to deploy those assets?

A: There was not enough time to deploy the assets, to provide the refueling they would have needed probably twice en route, given once while they are going, and if they’re going to have any on-station time, twice, those assets, those refueling assets were further out of reach than the jets in Italy — meaning in Aviano specifically. So it just wasn’t realistic. The line of questioning and approach here, for those of us in the military, that we would consider for a second not doing everything we possibly could, it just — it stirs us to our bones, because that’s who we are. We don’t leave anybody behind. We do support them under all circumstances. That night, middle of the night, it just wasn’t — for those assets that may have been able to get there in someone’s view, it just wasn’t very realistic. What is also unsaid in this is for those kinds of assets, the significant, though administrative issue of asking a country like Libya to come into their air space with combat forces. And those are decisions that have to be made. Obviously, if we had assets available. And the significance of either that being granted or not granted or the ability to even have it granted that night with everything else that was going on in Libya…

Q: …Admiral Mullen, Secretary Gates said that one reason he would not have approved sending an aircraft to Benghazi on the night of the attacks was due to a potential threat from surface-to-air missiles that may have disappeared from Colonel Qadhafi’s arsenal. Do you agree that that could be a possible reason why you wouldn’t want to send an asset over Benghazi?

A: If I were to send an asset over Benghazi I’d want to know what the threat is. I — from a standpoint of in particular this is focused — at least from my perspective it’s been focused on the second attack, which the event that — the mortar attack which killed two great Americans, Mr. Doherty and Mr. Wood. The reality is the likelihood at 2:00 in the morning or at 5:00 in the morning in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness, the likelihood that we could have had any effect on very accurate mortar fire set up in a very short period of time for — to be able to deter or take that out is from my perspective near zero. So I think Secretary Gates’ comment about the whole idea, and I think Secretary Panetta said the same thing another way, which is trying to understand the threat base which is what we always do when we send people in. That doesn’t imply from my perspective that we would have to wait. It’s just you need to understand it. And you need to understand the risks. And there are risks where from my perspective I would — when I was in a position of responsibility I would have taken the risk to send somebody in when there was a surface to air threat I thought I might be able to mitigate and there are times when I wouldn’t.

Q: …Admiral, do you agree with Secretary Gates that sending in Special Forces would have been very difficult and risky without knowing much more about the threat conditions?

A: I agree completely with what he said.

Q: Do you care to elaborate further on that?

A: I think what caught me in his statement there that I think is really important is his comment on “cartoonish.” As if it’s almost like a PowerPoint slide, you can go from a situation that is very calm to all of a sudden they’re all there. There’s an extraordinary amount of work that goes into planning and preparation and understanding what you’re doing. And going into very risky environments. Not that they wouldn’t do that. But that you can somehow do that instantly when you really are completely surprised, that you could generate a force to have that kind of impact is — it’s just not reasonable. And it’s not my experience in some pretty difficult circumstances over the last several years in two wars plus the war against al Qaeda.


Charles Wolf, Jr., Xiao Wang, and Eric Warner, “China’s Foreign Aid and Government-Sponsored Investment Activities,” Rand National Defense Research Institute, 2013.

(3PA: China only delivers a fraction of foreign aid that it pledges.)

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for the rare dive into the particulars of war,

    You quoted Admiral Mullen:

    “We did investigate that. And consistent with what I said previously, it was not realistic to think that we could task fast movers, jets, notionally in Aviano, Italy, 2 to 3 hours’ flying time away, without tankers, which were a minimum of 4 hours away in the middle of the night with no previous tasking…The physics of it, the reality of it, it just wasn’t going to happen for 12 to 20 hours. And I validated that in my review when I went to the Pentagon to look at every single asset that was postured in theater, including those jets in Aviano.”

    I’d like to add to the “investigation”. The Air Force has this notion of a sky bridge and, yes, you fly tankers. Just like they should have done on 9/11; rather then spew off all these excuses about fuel and limited planes. USAF has been doing air to air refueling for a very long time and they are very good at it. If this is not an understood SOP, then someone needs to fix that. It should always be understood that wherever “fast” aircraft are they are co-located with tankers. If that is not the case USG should rethink why it deploys them overseas anyway.

    If two Navy special warfare soldiers and an American ambassador are under fire, yes, yes you risk attack from surface to air missiles because that’s what you’re all about. Do you ask permission from a foreign government if your consulate is under attack _in their jurisdiction_? I hope not. Allowing the consulate to be fired upon is implicit permission to send any number of aircraft into Libyan airspace.

    The claim that there was a “near zero” chance of having any effect is nonsense. F-16s carry a 20 mm Vulcan Gatling cannon that fires 3000 rounds per minute. All the pilot needs is a GPS coordinate to fire upon. He doesn’t have to see a thing. With a gun like that one doesn’t need to actually hit the mortars, either. In the Iraqi conflict an A-10 with a similar forward mounted cannon fired upon a convoy of Iraqi Army vehicles pursuing a downed U.S. airman and stopped the attack. It took several hours for helicopters to arrive and pick up the pilot. But the A-10 kept the ground clear. It used no smart bombs are missiles. Just a good cannon.

    I hope USG _does_ actually have the GPS coordinates of their own consulates handy somewhere? And with tankers aloft they could have cycled squadrons all night long and ringed the consulate with lead.

    imo, this has nothing to do with practicality and all to do with geopolitical concerns about upsetting the Libyan regime and town folk with loud, bright, obnoxious and deadly fireworks all night long in Benghazi, courtesy USG. You could probably throw in a few civilian deaths as well. Not an entirely unreasonable objection, though the hoodlums that started the show could likewise be loathed.

    I wonder if Admiral Winnefeld’s comment about nuclear weapons being insurance against naked aggression dawned on him as something others might perceive as nauseous irony?

    - kk

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