Reaction Time

Why terrorism derails every administration.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

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.

At about the same time, the administration embarked on secret maneuvers to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held by shadowy groups in Lebanon. Like Carter, Reagan found it impossible not to respond to the emotional dilemma created by hostage seizures. Then, to get around congressional prohibitions, some officials used the profits thus acquired to support the anti-communist Contras of Nicaragua. In the middle of what turned out to be an embarrassing muddle, the administration retaliated against Libya for its involvement in the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen. The raid could be seen as compensation for having shown "weakness" in negotiating with Iran or as a return to the original strategy of zero tolerance for terrorism. Certainly some administration figures such as Oliver North had been looking for a smoking gun since at least 1984. Any satisfaction felt at having finally returned to principle was short-lived. In 1988, Libya retaliated with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

President Bill Clinton was also forced onto a reactive footing by terrorism. In 1993, the new administration was not in the least eager to take on terrorism as a major issue. The Cold War was over, and the Middle East seemed remade in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The White House rejected what was thought of as the "clash of civilizations" approach favored by Reagan. The president’s public speeches downplayed terrorism as but one of a series of modern transnational or "border-crossing" threats, along with drug trafficking, global organized crime, epidemics of disease, and environmental disasters. These were problems of the global commons, not existential threats to U.S. national security. The strategy was to be a modest approach of putting terrorism in perspective, a sort of return to normalcy in foreign policy.

But immediately, in February 1993, the bombing of the World Trade Center opened an era of terrorism that came bewilderingly from all ideological directions — the early progenitors of the jihadi movement, right-wing Americans, Iraq, Iran, and finally in 1998 al Qaeda fully formed. Although the United States wasn’t the target, the use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway by an apocalyptic sect set off alarms about terrorist "weapons of mass destruction," worries that had already been sparked by the reality of Russian "loose nukes." An administration that did not want to make terrorism an issue found it impossible to escape. Clinton used force twice in responding to terrorism, once against Iraq and again in 1998 when the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed. This was far from what the administration intended when it took office. The United States simply could not respond to terrorism in the same way that it responded to crises caused by drugs, crime, disease, and natural disasters.

Why does terrorism have this disruptive effect? Is it the nature of terrorism itself to frighten, shock, and outrage its audiences, or is it the politicization of the issue in American domestic politics, or is it a combination of the two? In general, terrorism is not as deadly as many other life-threatening phenomena, so it is not a question of magnitude of physical harm but of emotional effects on audiences. It is hard to develop and even harder to maintain a consistent, logical counterterrorism policy, one that is not just a sequence of ad hoc responses to discrete events. Presidents who did not want to exaggerate or perhaps even recognize the threat of terrorism wound up having to confront the issue, and presidents who placed terrorism high on the agenda still struggled to maintain control of policy. A challenge for the next four years will be to find a reasonable long-term strategy to deal with terrorism, a threat that has not disappeared despite over a decade of military responses.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola