Politics around Benghazi tragedy distract us from bigger issues in Middle East
Deflecting some of the heat the Romney campaign has aimed at President Obama and Joe Biden for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed responsibility for the security of US diplomats. America’s blind focus on avenging terrorism diverts us from asking hard questions about its historical roots – and our dubious alliances today.
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Mr. Affleck’s movie does address a small part of that context in Iran. The film begins with shots of the CIA-assisted coup that installed the corrupt and murderous Shah Reza Pahlavi on the Iranian throne in 1953. And, to his credit, Jimmy Carter spoke out against the shah’s human rights abuses when he was running for president in 1976.Skip to next paragraph
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Once he got to the White House, however, Carter joined his predecessors in coddling the Persian dictator. With oil prices rising – and the Soviet Union threatening Afghanistan – America needed a loyal ally in the region.
So Carter pressed for more arms sales to the shah, overriding objections from his fellow Democrats. And he soft-peddled human-rights criticisms of Iran, even after 60 Minutes reported that the shah’s secret service was spying on dissident Iranians in America.
He then allowed the deposed shah to come to the United States for medical treatment, which did more than anything else to precipitate the embassy takeover. And he also ordered the ill-fated mission to rescue the hostages, which resulted in the death of eight American servicemen.
The hostages didn’t return until the first day in office of Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter by calling for a new American global assertiveness. Some historians have claimed that Reagan’s campaign – fearful of an “October surprise” to bring the hostages home – plotted with Iran to retain them until after the November elections.
That’s doubtful. But you don’t have to be a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist to see the Iran hostage crisis (and subsequent parallels) as a boon for every Republican presidential candidate since Reagan. To tar your Democratic opponent as a weakling, just link him to Jimmy Carter and the hostages.
So will that strategy work for Mitt Romney? In part, that depends on what investigators turn up about security at the Libyan consulate before the attack – and about the Obama administration’s statements after it. Did the White House turn a deaf ear to pleas for more security, as GOP critics have claimed? And did administration officials deceptively attribute the attack to spontaneous anti-American mobs, even though it now seems to have been a premeditated strike by a militia with possible connections to Al Qaeda?
These are both reasonable questions, and voters deserve answers to them. But the American public shouldn’t let them distract us from much deeper issues about America’s past and present role in the Muslim world. Amid the chaos unleashed by revolutions there, which side or sides should the United States support? And how should we approach people who place Islam at the center of their politics?
These were new questions, back in 1979, and they remain questions today. They also require broad, thoughtful responses, not politicized election ploys.