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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).