COMMENTARY | Yesterday was one of America’s worst 9/11 attacks since 2001, as our ambassador to Libya and several Foreign Service Officers were killed in an act of terrorism.
Mitt Romney issued a scathing criticism of the Obama administration, insisting it was sympathizing with the terrorists. But such criticism may well wind up blowing up in his own face, just as it did for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
In 1983, the United States had its embassy in Beirut bombed, killing 63 people. Nearly 250 U.S. Marines were killed in their barracks by another suicide bomber later that year, on Oct. 23. Then, on Sept. 20, 1984, the terrorist group Hezbollah again targeted our Embassy Annex in Lebanon, killing 22, including two Americans.
Now at that point in the election, Walter Mondale had been gaining ground he lost after his convention in San Francisco where he promised to raise taxes. He had just crushed Ronald Reagan in a debate in Louisville. He cut Reagan’s lead in half according to a CBS/New York Times Poll, got Reagan’s lead down to single digits according to the Harris poll, and had one poll by USA Today showing him within three points of President Reagan.
Now, the myth of the 1984 election debates is that an aged and tired Reagan from the first debate regained his lead with quips like the one about not taking advantage of his opponent’s youth and inexperience. But given that Mondale was 56 and a former VP, it was only worth a few laughs. It had little to do with the outcome.
Mondale’s failure came from his repeated haranguing of Reagan for the bombings in Lebanon blasting him for not protecting them better. He probably remembered Reagan’s attacks on Carter for not doing more to free the hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran.
Yet all evidence showed that the reduced casualty figures in the 1984 blast were from better security. Furthermore, Americans rejected Mondale’s and Ferraro’s strategy of using embassy and barracks attacks for political gain. The most memorable exchange of the vice-presidential debates was President George H. W. Bush explaining to Geraldine Ferraro how Iran and Lebanon cases were different.
Romney’s attacks are similarly counterproductive. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo condemned the idiots who made the inflammatory film that started the riot. If anything, blood is on the filmmaker’s hands, whose only purpose in making the production was to start a riot. Those who defend the filmmaker are akin to those who blame the gas station for having flammable fuel, and not the dope who drops a lit cigarette in a puddle of gas.
Romney’s campaign even realized its error, and tried to focus more on honoring the dead, by posting four flags to honor the Americans killed. But Romney pressed on, blasting Obama the way Mondale hit Reagan.
Moreover, even as evidence showed that the U.S. Embassy condemned the video before the attack, Romney has kept up the mantra, oblivious to the facts. Even Republicans, realizing the futility of politicizing the embassy attacks, are urging Romney to back off.
“The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department,” Romney said. “They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. The statement that came from the administration — and the embassy is the administration — the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology. And I think was a severe miscalculation.” This quote came from the AP article “Romney assails Obama anew over foreign attacks,” by Ben Feller and Nedra Pickler.
Here is where Romney could have benefitted so much more from a Rob Portman or a Condi Rice, or perhaps someone who not only knows foreign policy better, but also a little political history. Romney seems to be following the failed foreign policy campaign path that Mondale used in 1984.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.