Former generals, professor weigh in on embassy attacks

Columbus Ledger-EnquirerSeptember 14, 2012 

President Barack Obama botched the response to attacks on American embassies in Libya, Egypt and Yemen earlier this week, if you ask two former Fort Benning commanding generals.

But a political science professor at Columbus State University said the president was put in practically an impossible situation, and that letting tempers cool before reacting and possibly making a terrible situation worse may be the wiser approach.

On Tuesday, America's ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other American diplomats were killed in an attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya. In the wake of that attack, American embassies in Egypt and Yemen were also attacked, but no casualties have been reported.

Some have blamed the attacks on excerpts of an anti-Islam film posted on YouTube. But some observers say that, while that may have been an impetus, Islamic extremists took advantage of simple protests to launch more organized attacks on the embassies under their guise.

Obama denounced the attacks immediately and has sent warships to the region, but has launched no overt military response. He initially came under sharp criticism from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has since softened that stance.

Locally, former Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza said the time for military action was immediately after the embassy attacks, and he does not expect that there will be a military response so long after the fact.

"At this point I don't think that will happen," said Cavezza, who previously served as Columbus city manager and is the current director of Columbus State University's Cunningham Center. "The current administration seems to want to take a go-slow approach to this thing. Of course, that's their prerogative, and I hope it works. But I think that if we're going to have military escalation, we're past that point now."

Absent another serious incident, Cavezza said, he does not expect to see a military response to the embassy attacks."It sounds partisan, and I hate to say it, but I don't see, now that they've gone past the initial blow of this thing, all of a sudden coming back and saying now we're going to use force. It's going to take something significant to make them use force.

"I think what we're going to see is diplomatic efforts and perhaps covert efforts to find out who is behind it and deal with them."Cavezzza said he would have immediately positioned forces in the area, removed all Americans and suspended all support for the countries until they dealt with the offenders and created a safe environment. That said, he tempered his criticism of the president's response with a recognition that there is no clear and obvious target at which to aim a response.

"I think a strong statement had to be made," Cavezza said. "Having said that, I mean, who do you attack? Do you attack a bunch of innocent people? You don't go after the head of state because it doesn't appear he had any control over it."

It's a difficult, difficult situation. I don't envy anybody having to deal with this thing. We can stand by and criticize, and I'm one of the critics because I'm mad because the United States of America has been attacked."

CSU political science professor Tom Dolan agreed that the situation Obama finds himself in is tough, but what is happening may be traced to political changes in the area -- changes that Americans had hoped would make the region more stable.

"The president's in a really difficult spot. What started off as an over reaction by some people to a really stupid video on YouTube has really been orchestrated into something a lot more," Dolan said. "What happened in Libya, I think, was probably an opportunistic cover for an attack on the embassy. I don't think it was just the people upset by the video who came out with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."

Dolan said a lot of the political unrest in the area can be traced back to regime changes, in which iron-fisted dictators who tolerated no unrest have been overthrown and fledgling democracies are experiencing the kind of growing pains they always do.

"What we're seeing is the ugly side of democracy. When you don't have an authoritative government to keep a lid on people's sentiments, they can really boil over," Dolan said. "When you look back at American history, we have this flowery view of what happened after the American Revolution. But we had protests, Shay's rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. These were examples of Americans dissatisfied with their government after the American Revolution and who rose up against their government."

Dolan said Obama's measured response has been criticized, but knee-jerk reactions sometimes do more to hurt than to help.

"Tempers are running high right now," he said. "I think it was last week we decided we were going to support the Egyptian government to the tune of a billion dollars. If the president came back right now and said, 'Hey, your riot just cost you a billion dollars,' well, that's just going to cause more riots."So probably the best thing would be to let tempers cool down a little but."

Another former Fort Benning commander, retired Lt. Gen. R.L. "Sam" Wetzel who served in the Middle East, agreed that the attacks were the work of extremists using the protests as cover. But he was unequivocal in his assessment of the president's response, calling it "appeasement."

"I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East," Wetzel said. "The leaders there respect strength. They do not respect weakness. What we have going on right now, in my opinion, is appeasement of these people, which will not work with them."

Wetzel said the attacks did not appear to him to be simple protests by Muslim citizens angered by an American film critical of Islam, as some are casting them.

"Attacking these embassies like they did was controlled by the radicals," Wetzel said. "If you watch the attack at Benghazi (Libya), that was obviously a three-pronged attack with different weapons. It was not an instant uprising of the people. That film they're talking about has nothing to do with it. That's all a smokescreen."Asked about the potential for the situation to escalate to the point of significant military involvement, Wetzel said, "I don't think the current administration will do anything about it militarily."

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