The U.S. *Has* Pulled Off Successful Embassy Rescues Before

News Abroad


Timothy R. Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic, World and African history. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and officer who currently works as an author, Islamic World analyst and consultant to the U.S. government and military.

U.S. and RVN personnel in front of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, January 31, 1968. Credit: U.S. Army.

What President Obama knew about the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi, when he knew it, and whether he withheld military assistance to the besieged staff there -- an allegation denied by administration spokesmen -- has now become a political football in this presidentital election, rivaled only by the ongoing anguish caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Attempting to strategically justify inaction, last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, when asked at a Department of Defense briefing why the U.S. did not send in more forces, said this: “the basic principle here…is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place.” And now the incessant criticism of the Obama administration on this issue has started to spark a backlash -- most notably, and ironically, by one of Fox News Channel’s own, Geraldo Rivera, who waxed indignant against his employer just this morning while discussing Benghazi, on “Fox & Friends:” “we have never, in the history of this republic, mounted a raid on [sic] the circumstance described here.” Both Panetta and Rivera in their positions betray a colossal ignorance of history -- despite the fact that both are educated men (attorneys); and in particular Secretary of Defense Panetta, with prior experience as a congressman, White House chief of staff and CIA director, should know better.

Panetta’s hyperbolic and overarching strategic claim that military doctrine dictates the commitment of forces only when the intelligence is clear-cut rings hollow, at best -- and smacks of political spin, at worst. Intelligence historian and analyst David Kahn notes that “in fourteen out of Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo, victory was decided by strength, brains and will -- with knowledge of the enemy playing an insignificant role” (the lone exception being a Roman defeat of the Carthaginians at the Metaurus River, 207 BC). In fact, “usually generals won battles without much more information about their foes than seeing where they were.” According to at least one report, the U.S. did have an unarmed drone over the Benghazi area on September 11, 2012 and thus did, indeed, possess “real-time information” -- quite likely enough to constitute “knowing what’s going on.” Rescue or support operations are distinguishable from full-scale battles, of course -- but one might well note that they differ primarily in terms of size of forces deployed and in the stakes (as important as the life of an ambassador is, it’s not on the level of saving an entire city, nation-state or civilization), thus making definitive intelligence as a sina qua non for taking action in the Benghazi incident even less pressing than its relative unimportance in world-changing battles.

The claim that the U.S. has never staged a military rescue mission of a consulate or embassy under attack by indigenous forces is demonstrably wrong, as well. There are two twentieth century examples of this being done successfully. The first was in 1927 -- the so-called “Nanking [Nanjing] Incident,” in which Communist troops of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army sacked the American, British and Japanese embassies and civilian-living sectors, killing the American vice-president of Nanking University in the process. American and British warships were dispatched and, after shelling the city, sent troops in to evacuate the embassy staffs and other civilian personnel. The other was in Vietnam in 1968 when, at the onset of the Tet offensive, Viet Cong forces besieged the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The ranking commander -- Lieutenant General Fred Weyand—ordered his forces simply “to secure the U.S. embassy,” and a rifle team from the 101st Airborne did so, even though the captain in charge “was not given any maps or aerial photos of the embassy, nor intelligence beyond the fact that the Viet Cong were there.”

The most audacious and complex rescue of a country’s nationals under siege, albeit not an American enterprise, was quite possibly that done by British forces under General Charles Gordon in 1884, when coming to the relief of the British embassy and garrison in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Sudan had, since 1881, been falling increasingly under the rule of Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese religious leader who claimed to be the “Mahdi” (“rightly-guided one”) of Islamic eschatological beliefs. When the Mahdi’s forces surrounded Khartoum, the British government -- with the assent of the Ottoman sultan, under whose purview Egypt and Sudan tehnically fell, a fiction which London allowed even after British occupation of Egypt in 1882 -- sent Gordon to take command and oversee evacuation. But upon arriving, Gordon decided the only option was to fortify the city and withstand Mahdist forces’ attacks -- a decision which led to, by January 1885, in a total Mahdist victory and the resulting beheading of Gordon, and killing and enslaving of all the British and Ottoman personnel before any more British troops could arrive.

The disastrous denouement of Gordon’s expedition should not subtract, however, from the fact that the British government did manage to mount and send a relief force to a point 3,000 miles from London -- and 1,000 miles even from Cairo. And that Her Majesty’s officials did so in order to confront a mob of Muslim messianic militants might have some resonance, and relevance, as well.

Of course, the primary counter-example that Geraldo probably had in mind was the ill-fated Operation “Eagle Claw,” the Carter Administration’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in the spring of 1980 -- a debacle which did have the positive result of prompting the creation of U.S. Special Operations Command as a means of redress. But over against that lone prominent example of American failure to rescue foreign service personnel stands the cases where we did do so, successfully.

“There are some things it is better to begin, than to refuse -- even though the end may be dark.” Those words were spoken by a fictional military commander (and, later, ruler) -- J.R.R. Tolkien’s returning king, Aragorn. But they are no less wise nor applicable to the real world, for that. It may have been dark, literally and in terms of intelligence, when Ambassador Stevens, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty and Sean Smith were fighting off members of the al-Qa`idah affiliate known as Ansar al-Shar`iah -- but that alone should not have dissuaded any administration from sending assistance not least because we have historical precedent for having done so, successfully. Now the after-the-fact question is this: will President Obama or President Romney avenge the deaths of those four brave men, as General Kitchener did Gordon? The chronic attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates -- 44 in 52 years -- will not only continue but likely accelerate, if neither does so. And the prospects for our foreign policy will be dark, indeed.

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