Controversy still follows the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues during the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The issue dominated U.S. campaign news as candidate Mitt Romney's supporters charged that President Barack Obama's administration was either deliberate or inept in misrepresenting events. The administration was accused of failing to protect the consulate or even go to the aid of its defenders. The response of the White House, State Department, and CIA was halting and defensive. Now the resignation of David Petraeus has prompted conspiratorial thinking in blog commentary.
The Obama campaign certainly did not expect or prepare for a sharp challenge to the president's successful foreign-policy record, especially his counterterrorism credentials. After all, they were burnished by the dramatic elimination of Osama bin Laden and indeed most of al Qaeda's top leadership through calculated drone strikes. If anything, critics thought the president was too aggressive in his use of drones. But it was by no means the first time that a president's plans and reputation for toughness have been derailed by the messy reality of terrorism.
The most memorable point of comparison is, of course, the devastating shock of the 9/11 attacks, which derailed the priorities of George W. Bush's administration and, in the space of a few short hours, thrust terrorism to the top of the national agenda after decades as a second- or even a third-tier threat. (In fact, before 2001, most international relations scholars took the view that terrorism was a minor blip on the grand radar of international power.) But terrorism has been disrupting the plans of presidents for decades, forcing America into a reactive mode that makes it difficult to address the threat strategically.
President Jimmy Carter was completely flummoxed by the November 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the prolonged Iran hostage crisis, during which U.S. diplomats were held captive for 444 days. Carter's international focus was on human rights and peaceful settlement of conflicts, not terrorism. U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to foresee the Iranian revolution and Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini's rise to power, and the Carter administration seemed stunned by the anti-American drift of the regime. Everyone knew that revolutionaries in Latin America and Palestinian resistance organizations targeted diplomats, but it was inconceivable that the leaders of a state would condone and support the takeover of an embassy. Now Carter could focus on little else but the hostages -- he even uncharacteristically resorted to military force to try to free them.
Carter's loss in the 1980 election had more to do with the economy than the hostages, but the crisis and the failed rescue attempt in April 1980 did little for the president's standing as a leader. The lesson was not lost on incoming President Ronald Reagan. During the campaign, Reagan decried the weakness of the administration and promised to stand strong against terrorism. During the single presidential debate he vowed, "There is no room worldwide for terrorism; there will be no negotiation with terrorists of any kind." The Reagan administration put the term "state-sponsored terrorism" into currency, aimed at exposing the evil empire of the Soviet Union. It looked as though the administration had a consistent counterterrorism strategy -- at least rhetorically.
The reality was that once in office, Reagan administration officials soon found themselves negotiating with the same "terrorists" who defied and humiliated Carter. Again, the government found itself reacting to events rather than controlling the agenda.
Intervention in the Lebanese civil war, though ostensibly multinational and directed at restoring the peace after the Israeli invasion, unexpectedly opened the United States to terrorism from Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Attacks in Beirut -- including not one but two bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks, resulting in more than 300 deaths -- led the United States to withdraw its military force in 1984.