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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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It’s easy to forget that militants had already stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, in February of that same year, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council made them vacate the premises. But Khomeini would give his imprimatur to the hostage takeover in November, insisting that Americans’ support for the shah made them complicit in his crimes. Americans like to see their country as a symbol of progress, pointing inexorably toward the future. But America’s enemies as well as our partners in the Middle East also look backward, into history, and we would be wise to do the same.

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That brings me back to my own years in Iran, which were hardly as tranquil as I remember them. In May of 1970, demonstrators amassed outside the Iran-America Society to denounce a visit by David Rockefeller and other prominent US businessmen. My family often attended plays and movies at the Society, which was a few blocks from our home, but I wasn’t aware of any of the protests that were taking place there. Nor did I know that the shah’s henchmen tortured a leading dissident to death the following month in June of 1970.

“I swear to God if you kill me, in every drop of my blood you can see the holy name of Khomeini,” the dissident reportedly told his tormentors. Khomeini’s name – and the hostages he held – still cast a shadow over everything we do, across the Middle East and beyond. It seems ridiculous for the Romney campaign to compare the hostages’ 444-day captivity to the recent episode in Libya, where large crowds protested against the attack on our consulate. But elsewhere in the Mideast – think Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the United Arab Emirates – the US continues its unholy dance with dictators.

And we may yet pay for this muddled policy – in American blood, and in the blood of others.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press). 

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