October 17, 2012
by Lee Smith
The popular reception of Argo, the new Ben Affleck movie about the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover in Iran, is perhaps evidence that the 444-day hostage-taking still occupies a dark corner of our national psyche. Unlike the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which we've memorialized and psychologized, we've generally buried memories of the string of flagrant assaults on U.S. diplomats and diplomatic missions in countries like Lebanon, Kuwait, and Sudan. In failing to respond militarily to this disturbing trend of violence against Americans abroad, our policymakers have given us little choice but to forget.
The latest instance of this was on display Monday, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped up to take responsibility for the lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2012. Clinton said that part of her rationale for speaking out is "to avoid some kind of political gotcha" about the tragic event, which figured heavily in last week's vice presidential debate. With only a few short weeks left before the presidential elections, Clinton is widely perceived to be falling on her sword on behalf of her commander-in-chief.
The Obama White House is surely grateful for Clinton's mea culpa, but the secretary of state's message may play very differently in the region, where political players are keenly attuned to any hint of American weakness. Rather than exculpating Obama, Clinton's gesture underlines the fact that her boss is refusing to take ultimate responsibility for the lives of four Americans, including one whose job was to implement his policies.
In this, Obama isn't unique. Unfortunately, backing away from the crime scene has become an American habit in the Middle East and North Africa, where for 40 years now our diplomats have been killed, kidnapped, and targeted for assassination, and our embassies have been bombed, besieged, and most famously, overrun and captured in Tehran.
The White House is reportedly considering retaliatory options, presumably drone strikes and covert operations. However, given the public nature of the murders, it would be much more constructive if retribution comes not from the skies or in the dark, but rather in broad daylight, leaving no doubt as to who served justice to the murderers of Americans.
But don't count on it. From Nixon through Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, American presidents have done virtually nothing to stem the terror targeting our diplomats and diplomatic missions. Obama is merely the latest embodiment of an ill-advised—and dangerous—presidential tradition.
Here's a partial chronicle of how our commanders-in-chief have cheapened the lives of American diplomats in the region:
If U.S. policymakers have managed to avoid being taken to task at home for abdicating responsibility to protect Americans, 40 years of American blood and rubble surely doesn't win us much respect in the Mideast. Sec. Clinton insists that diplomacy must go on, that "we can't not engage." But those whom we are trying to engage must surely wonder: If the Americans won't punish their enemies in order to protect their own people, how can we trust them to protect us?
The issue is further magnified when it comes to the lives of diplomats. Morally, there is no difference between the life of a 19-year-old Marine and a 52-year-old Foreign Service officer, but where statecraft is concerned there is a very large difference indeed. On the big chess board of foreign policy, an ambassador is something like the rook. To both our allies and our adversaries, the lives of only the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense are more valuable than that of an ambassador. For it is the ambassador who represents in that particular place and time the policies of the U.S.'s elected executive.
The late Christopher Stevens, who was said to be popular not only with his State Department colleagues but also with the Libyans he helped liberate from Muammar Qaddafi, embodied the best part of Obama's Libya policy. Like the Libyans who gathered publicly to commemorate Stevens' death and denounce his murderers, the president should be taking it personally, as an attack on him and the country he was elected to lead—regardless of the election cycle.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday, 2010).
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