- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
For months now, the right and the left have argued about whether this year’s contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a repeat of the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It’s a comparison that benefits Republicans, who want to portray Obama as helpless on the economy (‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’), feckless on foreign policy (both Carter and Obama faced attacks on U.S. embassies), and politically vulnerable (Reagan surged ahead of Carter in the homestretch; the Romney campaign has its fingers crossed).
On Wednesday, National Journal‘s Sophie Quinton argued that Romney’s criticism of Obama in the wake of Tuesday’s assaults on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya was a marked departure from Reagan’s response to the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis in 1979-1980. When Carter’s effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran failed in April 1980, Quinton points out, Reagan took the high ground, asserting that "this is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united." When Reagan later debated Carter in the fall, she adds, he refrained from answering a question about how he would handle a similar crisis because of the sensitivity of the issue.
That’s some impressive restraint. But while Reagan did ocassionally express support on the campaign trail for Carter’s responses to the Iranian hostage crisis (praising the decision to freeze Iranian assets, for example), he was far less diplomatic on many other occasions.
In fact, the debate between Carter and Reagan over the Iranian crisis was remarkably similar to the rhetoric we’re hearing now from the Obama and Romney campaigns. Let’s take a look at some examples:
U.S. weakness at fault
Reagan: In November 1979, just weeks after radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Reagan argued that Carter’s policies had diminished respect for the United States around the world. "[L]et us be respected to the point that never again will a demented dictator dare to invade an American embassy and hold our people hostage," he said. The Associated Press reported at the time that "Reagan repeatedly said he wouldn’t comment on the Iranian situation because remarks by presidential candidates might upset possible secret negotiations" to free American hostages. "But in each case," the news outlet added, Reagan "followed his refusal with criticism" of Carter’s Iran policy.
Romney: Romney, it seems, is far less conflicted about speaking out, but he too has suggested that Obama’s failure to lead created the conditions under which attacks on U.S. missions could occur. "The attacks in Libya and Egypt underscore that the world remains a dangerous place and that American leadership is still sorely needed," he said at a press conference on Wednesday. Romney surrogate John Bolton was more blunt in an interview with the Washington Post. "The perception of American weakness that provided the foundation for these attacks is largely because of Obama administration mistakes and lack of resolve," he argued.
Embassy attack symptomatic of bigger issues
Reagan: In November 1979, the Washington Post also reported the Reagan quote above, but with some additional context. Reagan claimed that the lack of respect underlying the embassy attack stemmed from the Carter administration’s destructive desire to be liked, whether by supporting the SALT II nuclear arms deal with the Soviet Union or transferring control of the Panama Canal to Panama. "Isn’t it about time that we said to the administration in Washington that we’re not so concerned if other countries like us?" the Republican candidate asked. "We would like, once again, to be respected by other countries."
Romney: Romney cited his differences with Obama on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and Syria during his press conference, and Romney surrogate Dan Senor made a more explicit connection between the events of the last couple days and these larger issues during an appearance on CNN. The violence, he contended, is a reminder of the "chaos that a lot of the policies of this administration has sowed. Chaos in the Arab Spring. Chaos where allies in Israel feel that they can’t rely on us. You saw the flare up over the last couple of days with the prime minister of Israel and the president."
Violation of American principles
Reagan: In the weeks after the attack in Tehran, Reagan lashed out at the Carter administration for violating an "American principle" by not granting Iran’s deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi permanent asylum. "If you read those words on the face of the Statue of Liberty, we have a history of being an asylum for political exiles," Reagan asserted. "And he certainly was as loyal an ally for a great many years as this country have possibly have had."
Romney: Romney has also appealed to American values in denouncing the Obama administration, arguing that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, in publishing a statement and tweets condemning an anti-Islam American film before a crowd gathered at the compound, had issued an "apology for America’s values." The first response to an embassy breach "should not be to say, ‘Yes, we stand by our comments that — that suggest that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech,’" Romney declared.
‘Shoot first’ mentality
Carter: During his convention speech in August 1980, Carter noted that "while we Democrats grapple with the real challenges of a real world, others talk about a world of tinsel and make-believe," adding that "[i]t’s a make-believe world, a world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later." (h/t: Washington Examiner)
Obama: In an interview with CBS on Wednesday, Obama criticized Romney for swiftly denouncing the administration’s foreign policy while news of the U.S. mission attacks was still developing. Intentionally or not, the president echoed Carter. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he observed. "And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that. That, you know, it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts."
No time for politics
Carter: In October 1980, ahead of his only debate with Reagan during the race, chastised the Republican candidate for breaking a pledge to refrain from discussing the Iranian crisis. "The fate of the hostages is too important … to be made a political football," Carter explained. Reagan, for his part, claimed the hostage issue was fair game. "Breaking my pledge might be if I waited until 7:15 on Election Day and then brought the subject [up] as he did in the Wisconsin primary," Reagan retorted (he was referring to Carter’s surprise news conference on Iran on the morning of the state’s primary).
Obama: In an interview with Telemundo on Wednesday, Obama argued that the aftermath of the U.S. mission attacks was not a "time for politics." As president, he added, "my obligation is to focus on security for our people … and not having ideological arguments on a day when we’re mourning."
There are some differences between the two periods, of course. Reagan did not publicly criticize Carter for several days after students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran, while Romney issued a statement hours after the attacks in Egypt and Libya. But within weeks, Reagan was weighing in forcefully on the issue. And by December 1979, the Washington Post reported that Reagan was "finding it hard to restrain himself" on Iran and had "suggested for the first time that he might make the Iranian issue a major theme of his political campaign once the hostage question is decided."
That day never came during the race. But that didn’t stop Reagan from seizing on an issue that ultimately helped propel him to victory.