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.
As Talking Point Memo pointed out Saturday, terrorists may also have been involved in the August 1988 death of another American ambassador, who crashed aboard a plane with the Pakistan president. Michael Dukakis, the Democrat running against Bush I, never raised any questions about the mysterious crash, or the jarring array of terrorist failings of the Reagan/Bush era. There’s little doubt that Romney prefers the imagery of this Carter-to-Obama arc of ambassadorial killings, but if he is looking for terrorist parallels, no example of his political use of the Libya slayings exists.
The Obama engineering of the 2011 downfall of Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi is almost never mentioned in this controversy. Mitt Romney was in fact a critic of Obama’s Qaddafi approach (“mission creep and mission muddle”), and in his 2010 tome No Apology cited the dictator’s “lavish praise” of Obama—quoting him as saying, “We’d be happy if Obama can stay president forever,” and charging that Qaddafi was “the audience to which Obama is playing.” Obama succeeded in toppling a regime targeted by his predecessors for decades, and is, oddly, reaping a whirlwind because chaos followed the overthrow, opening the door to this terrible attack.
Against the backdrop of the Romney and media reaction to Libya, here is the chronological list of the contrasting response to prior deadlier events:
Beirut—Between April 1983 and September 20, 1984, 260 Americans died in two attacks on America’s embassy in Lebanon and one explosion at the marine barracks near the Beirut airport, all committed by Hezbollah. Seventeen Americans, including the CIA’s chief Middle East analyst, died that April, with 241 marines dying in the October barracks assault, the worst loss of US troops in any single incident since Iwo Jima. A month and a half before the 1984 presidential election, an attack on a new embassy cost two more American lives. Suffering twenty-three other losses before and after the barracks attack, the marines had already left Lebanon months before the second embassy attack.
Ronald Reagan overruled his Pentagon advisers and deployed the marines in Lebanon, then ignored 100 warnings of the sitting duck jeopardy they were in, yet won re-election in a landslide. Pre-election coverage of the catastrophe was far less intense than the media excavation of every timeline detail of the Libya attack is now, despite Mondale’s efforts to push the issue. Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar for Clinton and Bush II who was an assistant secretary in Reagan’s state department, recalled that Reagan told a prime-time audience that we went into Lebanon in part “because of the oil,” though “Lebanon had no oil.”
Deployed as “neutral” observers of a civil war, the marines frequently carried weapons with no bullets in the chamber. Two weeks before the second embassy attack, the CIA obtained photographs of a Lebanon terrorist training facility that revealed oil drums arrayed to mimic the street layout and concrete barriers in front of the embassy, with fresh tire tracks visible that revealed the path the suicide bombers subsequently took. Reagan nonetheless blamed the success of the embassy attack on the “near destruction of our intelligence capability” during the Carter years, and his administration never disclosed the photographic evidence. Reagan authorized a missile strike and reneged on it. Pressed by Mondale about “inadequate embassy security,” Reagan acknowledged that American personnel had moved in before shatterproof glass and steel gates could be installed, adding that “anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done knows that it get never gets done as soon as you wish it would.” Asked about the withdrawal of the eighty marines guarding the embassy a couple of months earlier, Reagan explained that the marines would have blocked a residential street. “The people must have access to that street,” he said. Reagan said he wouldn’t comment further until a study he’d commissioned was finished. He also launched a military invasion of tiny and defenseless Grenada two days after the Beirut barracks debacle and, on the eve of the election, was still bragging about Grenada while sidestepping Beirut.
Mondale crushed him in an October 21 debate, charging that the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked him five days before the marine attack to “please take them out of there,” and that a report “disclosed that we had not taken any of the steps that we should have taken” before that massacre, or when the embassy was blown up again. He said the president “told the terrorists he was going to retaliate” and didn’t, leaving the United States in “humiliation.” Reagan’s comeback was that he hadn’t ordered the marines into “that barracks,” calling it “a command decision made by the commanders on the spot.” Dr. Amy Zalman, information integration chair at the National War College, concluded in a 2008 article about many of these incidents that Mondale “tried to use Reagan’s lack of a military response, and lack of clarity on policy as a campaign issue,” painting his Beirut actions “as a form of wishy-washiness,” but “was unsuccessful.”
Pan Am Flight 103—A few weeks after George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988 but before he took office, this flight from London to New York was downed, killing 189 Americans. Within days, it was determined that explosives planted on the plane, apparently in Germany, had brought it down, just as intelligence reports had warned for two months prior to the attack. But a meandering investigation, targeting Syria at first, then Iran and finally Libya, dragged on until 1990, when a bomb timing device found in the wreckage was tracked to the Libyan intelligence service. Two Libyans were indicted in 1991.
Bush had promised in 1988 to “punish severely” the guilty parties, but he decided, contrary to CIA and other advice, that he would do nothing, even after Qaddafi refused to turn over the two suspects. Not even this track record could compel “it’s-the-economy-stupid” Clinton to make an issue of it in the 1992 race, though Bush played the terrorism card the day before the election, asking Americans to “imagine” what would happen if a “completely untested” president were faced with an international crisis. In 1999, the two Libyans were turned over to Scottish authorities for a Hague trial, one of which was convicted shortly after Bush II was inaugurated in 2001. The thirteen years of delay never became a serious campaign issue.
Riyadh and Khobar Towers—The November 1995 attack on a US-leased training facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia claimed five American lives, making it the seventh deadliest on our list. It was followed in June 1996 with the truck-bombing of a Saudi housing complex for American servicemen that left 19 servicemen dead, the third deadliest attack. A day after the Khobar attack, Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, said: “An attack on any American is an attack on America. I would support whatever the Administration has in mind.” When the Clinton administration took no action, Dole made no comment. Asked by The Nation why he didn’t attack Clinton on Riyadh or Khobar, Dole said: “I don’t recall a specific reason why we didn’t do something on those two things.”
Clinton conceded in his 2004 autobiography that “the security provisions at Khobar were plainly inadequate; the truck had been able to get too close to the building because our people and the Saudis had underestimated the ability of terrorists to build a bomb that powerful.” The Saudis denied the US access to the Khobar suspects for nearly five years, when they were finally indicted. Though Vice President Al Gore was the Democratic candidate in 2000, Bush II never made an issue of the response to these attacks.
Tanzania and Kenya embassies—Twelve Americans were among the 305 people killed in the simultaneous bombings of these embassies on August 7, 1998, the fifth deadliest attack. The FBI and CIA quickly concluded that Al Qaeda was responsible. Eight days after the bombings, Clinton confessed his Lewinsky sins to his wife and daughter, just forty-eight hours before his scheduled grand jury testimony. He and his family then took off for Martha’s Vineyard, where, wrote Clinton, “I spent the first couple of days alternating between begging for forgiveness and planning the strikes on Al Qaeda.”
Thirteen days after the embassy attack, cruise missiles were fired at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. As ineffectual as the strikes proved to be, they were the only time a president ever responded to one of these seven attacks (Reagan struck Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 after two Americans were killed in a Berlin disco by a Libyan bomb). Bush II, already the likely opponent against Gore in 2000, addressed the air strikes dispassionately. “I think you give the commander-in-chief the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “This is a foreign policy matter. I’m confident he’s working on the best intelligence available, and I hope it’s successful.” Newt Gingrich, the House speaker then in a fight for his majority, said: “I think the president did exactly the right thing.”
While some of the initial GOP support of Clinton faded, the cruise response, which reportedly killed thirty Al Qaeda and missed bin Laden by hours, was never used as a political issue against Gore. Contrary to 9/11 Commission staff findings, which concluded that Clinton was more focused on Al Qaeda than Bush before the twin tower attack, Romney’s one-sided account of this history in No Apology charges that America was “blind to the threat of violent jihad” and “our leaders failed to take aggressive action against them,” naming only Clinton.
The USS Cole—The fourth deadliest attack occurred just a month ahead of the 2000 election when seventeen US sailors aboard the Cole were killed. A small boat laden with C-4 explosives was detonated near it in a Yemen harbor. Even Clinton’s top counterterrorism staff conceded that its “system had failed” and they had no idea that navy destroyers were even making port calls in Al Qaeda–friendly Yemen. Prior to the election, the CIA and FBI had no indisputable evidence that Al Qaeda had launched the attack.
Bush’s aligned himself with Clinton, saying it was important for America “to speak with one voice.” While Gore aggressively called for “a full and forceful and effective retaliatory response,” Bush said he hoped “we gather enough intelligence to figure out who did it,” adding “there must be a consequence.” Clinton, wounded by impeachment and gun shy after the failure of the 1998 strikes, willed the US response to Bush, saying he had “absolutely no doubt” that Bush would, “when the evidence is in,” take appropriate action.
Instead, as one top counterterrorism expert in both White Houses, Roger Cressy, put it: Bush’s team “showed no interest in following up on the Cole.” The president later told the 9/11 Commission that he was “concerned lest an ineffectual air strike just serve to give bin Laden a propaganda advantage.” National Security chief Condi Rice testified before the commission that “tit-for-tat” responses were likely to be counterproductive. John Lehman, the 9/11 Commission member, Romney security adviser and navy secretary under Reagan, said that the Bush neocons were “just besotted” with Iraq and missile defense. “They were living in another world,” the Republican Lehman contended, “and the Cole was not part of that world. Al-Qaeda was just not part of their threat scenario.”
If there had been a response to the Cole, says Lehman, “I think it could well have avoided 9/11. I totally believe that.”
Riyadh again—Nine Americans were killed in an Al Qaeda bombing here in May 2003, and four more in 2004 attacks. John Kerry, who became the Democratic candidate a year later, was mildly critical of the Bush administration immediately after the 2003 attack, charging that “the triumphalism of this administration, the president’s comments and others about Al Qaeda on the run has really exceeded reality.” But that was all he said, never turning the Saudi attacks, or the failure to respond to the Cole, into campaign issues.
Kerry did make an effort during the debates to focus on the failure to get bin Laden, but the issue had little impact. Similarly, Bush’s indifference to the intelligence warnings that preceded 9/11 got a fraction of the attention that the Libya is getting now. Stacked against this history, the deference given to Romney’s in-the-weeds Libya complaints has the stench of media fever, a pack willing to buy into a conspiracy without a motive, and putting the parsing of Obama’s Rose Garden statement ahead of a full term of counter-terrorist success.
Research assistance was provided by Jacob Anderson, Max Jaeger, Stephanie Rogan and Catherine Thompson.