WASHINGTON -- As critics debate whether President Obama is tough enough to lead America at war, he boosted his stock by ordering the capture of the alleged mastermind of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Yet, at the same time, he appears to fiddle while Iraq burns.
Just as the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden with the president's go-ahead to the Navy Seals cast him as a decisive commander-in-chief, so has the seizing in Libya of Ahmed Abu Khattala by Army Delta Force and FBI operatives.
Obama's report that the captive was being brought to U.S. jurisdiction for investigation could at last clear up questions that have haunted his administration, and particularly his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. She remains subject to criticism over the immediate response to the attack that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have maintained a drumbeat of accusations that the Obama administration first tried to pass off the origins of the attack as a public protest against a video disparaging Islam, rather than an act of terrorism.
Clinton's current book tour for her memoir of her term as secretary has been peppered with more Benghazi questions, though the book has a chapter on the episode. In a CNN interview Tuesday, she acknowledged, "I'm still looking for answers, because it was a confusing and difficult time."
While the capture of Khattala enabled Obama to demonstrate that he remains resolute in going after terrorists, it also brought about another revisiting of the issue of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay that holds suspected terrorists. To date, Obama has vowed unsuccessfully to close it, and McCain and Graham said the latest prisoner should be brought and tried there.
The dramatic capture provided a temporary diversion for Obama from the disintegrating situation in Iraq, about which his administration has floated conflicting signals of intent. The president has said only that he is considering military options short of reinserting American combat forces that he so determinedly withdrew by the end of 2011.
But the administration has told Congress that 275 American troops are being sent to secure the large U.S. embassy in Baghdad, amid reports of advancing Sunni militants imperiling the ruling Shiite regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has so far ignored U.S. urging that he bring Sunni elements into his regime.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey by Republican Bill McInturff and Democrats Peter Hart and Fred Yang shows that even before the latest political and military crisis in Iraq, disapproval of Obama's handling of foreign policy had plunged to 57 percent, an all-time low. The same poll shows Obama's overall favorability at 41 per cent, down from 44 percent two months ago.
His second-term objective of disentangling America from foreign military involvement is more jeopardized than ever by events out of his control, despite isolated demonstrations of resoluteness like the Khattala capture. The recent swap of five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for five years, has not gone down well at home, especially with Congress having been left out of the loop on the deal.
Greater disengagement may well be what the American public wants now after a decade of fighting wars, but the world does not seem disposed right now to allow it.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)
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