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A 40-Year U.S. Embassy Crisis

The murders in Benghazi are the latest in a string of attacks on American diplomats to go unanswered by the U.S.

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Debris remains from an attack on the United States Embassy, Islamabad, Pakistan, 1980. (James L. Stanfield/National Geographic/Getty Images)

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:

• In February 1973, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Black September faction assassinated the U.S. Ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, and Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis Moore. The terrorists broke into the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, which was hosting a party, separated the Americans and a Belgian diplomat from the rest of the guests and demanded the release of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, and other Palestinians held in European and Israeli jails. When the Nixon Administration refused to negotiate, the Palestinians, according to one account, opened fire on their hostages, “from the floor upward, to prolong their agony of their victims by striking them first in the feet and legs, before administering the coup de grace.”

The State Department knew from the very outset of the attack that Yasser Arafat was personally directing the operation, but neither Nixon nor any other American president ever punished the PLO chairman, who lived to become a favored guest in the Clinton White House.

• In June 1976, a different Palestinian faction kidnapped the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Francis E. Meloy, Jr. along with Robert O. Waring, the U.S. economic counselor. When Soviet diplomats were taken in Beirut during the 15-year-long civil war, Moscow took swift and brutal action against the families of the kidnappers. But after Meloy and Waring’s bullet-riddled corpses were found dumped on the side of the road, Washington did nothing.

• In February 1979, under President Carter, the American Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs was killed in an exchange of gunfire between Afghan security forces and the Muslim extremists who kidnapped him. Again, the Americans failed to respond in kind.

• When the embassy in Tehran was overrun on Nov. 4, 1979, and 52 Americans were taken hostage, the Carter Administration’s failure to acknowledge the action as a classic casus belli advertised America’s impotence, and others around the Middle East got the message. On Nov. 21, a mob attacked the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, killing two American diplomats. And in December, protesters set fire to the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya.

• In April 1983, with Reagan now in the White House, Iran’s Lebanese arm, Hezbollah, bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. In December of the same year, Hezbollah bombed the American embassy in Kuwait, killing five people. In September 1984, Hezbollah bombed the U.S. embassy annex in East Beirut, killing 22, including two Americans. Amazingly, the Reagan Administration, those hard-charging hawks, met secretly with the Iranians in May 1986 and presented them with a cake in the shape of a key in the hope of a new opening, despite all the American blood they’d shed.

• On Aug. 7, 1998, truck bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es-Salam, Tanzania, killing 224, including 12 Americans. In June 2011, the mastermind of the twin bombings was killed in Mogadishu by Somali security forces. But at the time of the attacks, the Clinton Administration’s response was futile, famously firing cruise missiles into Afghanistan and against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.

• George W. Bush did nothing after the U.S. consulate in Jeddah was attacked in 2004 and nine were killed, and he sat on his hands after a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus in 2006. The Syrians are also believed to be responsible for an assassination attempt on the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman in January 2008.

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.

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If it happens, you can be sure that any action, covert or otherwise, will be noticed. Word will get around. In the US, Obama may announce it in an oblique nonspecific way, or he may send out word on background to the media. But he’ll want to do something. By now, covert assassination of terrorists is an established part of his M.O., and odds are they know pretty well at this point who was involved.

Generally our calling card is not body parts of family members of the alleged perpetrators rolling around in the streets, as the Russians might use to send a message. The author provides no other model for justice or even retribution.

    Typical knuckle dragger neoconservative gung ho piece right from the streaming sewers of Bill Kristol’s bat cave. If Buffalo Bill wants to pluck out everybody’s eye he can put on his pretty platform shoes and do it himself, people are weary of wound up wind bags like Lee Smith and his smutty circus master Buffalo Bill Kristol the bully boy.

jcarpenter says:

Knee-jerk responses (“send in the Marines!” “airstrikes!”) would end in open-season on any Americans in the area—business persons, students, travellers, relief/medical personnel, etc.

typical chickenhawk drivel coming from the weekly standard. “they hate us for our freedom”–so goes the simplistic rationale they’d like american citizens to believe. go on pretending the CIA never coined the phrase “blowback”. perish the thought–foreign operations never have unintended consequences.

rigaud says:

A childish vision from seeing too many westerns. No clue as to complexity and vulnerability of innocent civilians in the area. Foolish brag bully crap.

BobWV; There has been little or NO response to these attacks since at least 1979. That does not go unnoticed by bad guys. It’s not just BHO. No administration has done anything. And we are paying for it now. Thats why we had 9/11. No one had done anything. We pulled out of Beirut, Mogageshu, did nothing about Kobar Towers and the USS Cole. Why would Osama think 9/11 would be different!

    You just weren’t paying attention. Never served in our military either, have you? Do you recall the Iranian house of Congress collapsing on many of their leaders shortly after the release of our hostages? They claimed it was CIA, but that couldn’t have been true because America doesn’t retaliate because you said so.

It happens that President Obama DID take responsibility publically for the lack of security.You are inaccurate.

Traditionally, the responsibility for the safety of foreign government emmisaries lies, first and foremost, with the host governments. However, most of these attacks and killings have lately occurred within Muslim countries, and the Muslim countries have exhibited incompetence and/or neglect. From the days of Salah-a-Din (Saladin) a code of chivalry had generally been a famous tradition that protected foreign emmisaries, but today, there are many reasons why this tradition has been “deep-sixed,” and reflects the chaos of Muslim society since its exploitation under the Ottomans. Western imperialistic policies did nothing to lift up this once noble culture, and the boundaries of the modern Arab states, which were decided by these Western powers, neglected the various differences within this area, such as Sunni-Shi’ite differences, Kurdish, Berber, Jewish, and Christian communities within the “Arab sea,” and the resulting increase in tribally-based banditry. Add to this the element of interpreting and use of what is generally called the “Sharia,” in extreme ways, and the cults of Salafi jihadism and, in Iran, a Shi’ite revolutionary regime, justifying acts that under any normal society would be criminal, with a weakened and barely functional national Arab state, the foreign emmissaries are in a situation that sets back the development of state-to-state relationships where today, the consulates and embassies may have to be a fortress as well as diplomatic station. Therefore, the very concepts of diplomacy and diplomatic immunity have been thrust under a severe threat.

As I argue in this piece (http://valuingsecurity.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/tablet-magazine-publishes-poor-excuse-for-analysis-on-embassy-attacks/), Lee Smith’s article does not wrestle with the actual trends, but instead cherry picks a few attacks. When one looks at Adam Serwer’s article examining attacks on US diplomats since 1970, it is clear that unless one is operating from an any attack anywhere constitutes a trend of policy failure stance, speaking of a 40 year trend is just wrong. Moreover attaching it to vague unproven claims of deterrence through signaling strength risks serious policy failures.

Geoffrey says:

This article is a bit misleading. Attacks on US diplomatic staff are down significantly over the past 25 years, and haven’t really been that high excepting a brief spike in the 80’s and early 90’s. (http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/10/diplomatic-attacks-are-much-rarer-they-used-be).

Since the number of attacks is never going to be zero, and it is extremely difficult to react effectively to small-scale attacks in other countries without impinging on their sovereignty, it’s not clear at all that this is a major issue. It would be a more reasonable conclusion that the US has been responding effectively to security threats abroad for some time and continues to do so.

Beatrix17 says:

Lee Smith, is usually the best thing about Tablet.
In 9/11 we overreacted by starting two 20th century type
wars in response to a 21st century terrorist strike.
Maybe if we’d had a history of successful surgical strikes , we would
have known what to do.

I’m reading “No Easy Day,” which indicates that
we have the proper resources, we just need the right leadership.
Luckily, Hillary and Panetta overruled Jarret, and the Seals were
able to take out OBL

Hard Little Machine says:

There is no response because US administrations have a permanent policy of sacrificing anyone and everyone on the pyre of Arabist gobbledygook that promises us conciliation ‘if we only let this one go’. Honestly, we should see a mass exodus out of the foreign service soon if Obama is reelected since they could not be any more obvious that this administration doesn’t care about the safety of its staff in the pursuit of kissing up to Islamic maniacs.

    “It’s all the Arab’s fault.” Spoken like a proud and true racist.

      Pam Green says:

      You’re playing the race card because you have no legitimate argument against his point. Nothing he said was racist.

Hard Little Machine says:

There is no response because US administrations have a permanent policy of sacrificing anyone and everyone on the pyre of Arabist gobbledygook that promises us conciliation ‘if we only let this one go’. Honestly, we should see a mass exodus out of the foreign service soon if Obama is reelected since they could not be any more obvious that this administration doesn’t care about the safety of its staff in the pursuit of kissing up to Islamic maniacs.

Did you claim that Obama had made “no response” to Bin Laden before he found and killed him? Do you wonder why no bowel movement the minute you get up from the table? We could do things the Netanyahu and Sharon way and launch a white phosphorus attack on a neighborhood that may have at one time harbored a suspected terrorist who might have been involved in a recent incident!

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A 40-Year U.S. Embassy Crisis

The murders in Benghazi are the latest in a string of attacks on American diplomats to go unanswered by the U.S.

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