Five of the seven deadliest terrorist attacks on Americans overseas, claiming from five to 283 lives between 1983 and 2004, occurred in the lead-up to or during presidential campaigns. A sixth, the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, happened in the middle of a tense 1998 congressional campaign, and as the House girded itself for the coming impeachment battle.
Yet the handling of these attacks by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush never became the kind of partisan fodder that the loss of four American lives at Benghazi has become, pushed by the Romney/Ryan ticket and unprecedented critical coverage, both of which are politicizing every nuance of the Obama administration’s response.
In contrast with Mitt Romney’s relentless Libya critique, Clinton in 1992, Clinton opponent Bob Dole in 1996, Bush II and Newt Gingrich in 1998, Bush II again in 2000 and Bush II opponent John Kerry in 2004 did not exploit these incidents, while Walter Mondale’s attempt to do so in 1984 got little media support. As forcefully as Romney is attempting to depict the attack as a consequence of Obama’s perceived Middle East “weakness,” over 90 percent of the 538 Americans who died in these seven earlier incidents did so while a Republican was in the White House, and Obama’s tally of four fatalities in overseas incidents is the lowest death toll of any modern American president. Nonetheless, Romney’s drumbeat about the Libya attack, focused on the timetable of administration disclosures about the nature of the assault, has had a greater impact on this presidential campaign than the abject bungling of far more catastrophic events that preceded it.
While Romney has accurately pointed out that the most recent slaying of an American ambassador occurred when Jimmy Carter was president in 1979, the last clear-cut terrorist killing happened during the 1976 presidential contest, when the US ambassador in Lebanon and two of his aides were kidnapped and their bodies were dumped on a West Beirut beach.When The Nation observed in an interview with Bob Dole last week that Carter never made an issue of the 1976 murder in his race against incumbent Gerald Ford, Dole, who was Ford’s vice presidential candidate, said “that’s true.”
The 1979 killing that Romney has cited involved the kidnapping of our ambassador in Kabul by anti-Soviet Afghans. He was shot during a gun battle between the security forces of the pro-Soviet puppet government and its opponents. A Los Angeles Times story in 1992 quoted senior Afghan sources as saying that “the Soviet-controlled regime was almost certainly in on the conspiracy to kill” the ambassador, noting that Soviet KGB advisers accompanied the Afghan commandos and that the assassination served the “prime goal of driving Kabul into the Soviet grip.” It was the puppet regime that described the kidnappers, all of whom were killed, as terrorists, while the Reagan administration eventually armed the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. Neither side in this gunfight fits American definitions of a terrorist.