Lee Smith, an editor for the Weekly Standard and fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has a new piece in Tablet Magazine peddling the line that embassy attacks are a result of weakness. He takes an aggressive tone arguing for strong, visible retaliation:
In this, Obama isn’t unique. Unfortunately, backing away from the crime scene has become an American habit in the Middle East and North Africa, where for 40 years now our diplomats have been killed, kidnapped, and targeted for assassination, and our embassies have been bombed, besieged, and most famously, overrun and captured in Tehran.
The White House is reportedly considering retaliatory options, presumably drone strikes and covert operations. However, given the public nature of the murders, it would be much more constructive if retribution comes not from the skies or in the dark, but rather in broad daylight, leaving no doubt as to who served justice to the murderers of Americans.
But don’t count on it. From Nixon through Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, American presidents have done virtually nothing to stem the terror targeting our diplomats and diplomatic missions. Obama is merely the latest embodiment of an ill-advised—and dangerous—presidential tradition.
The problem is that the article’s cherry picked list of attacks does not wrestle with the larger trends in the data. The United States does not face a surge of terror attacks on embassies. Embassy attacks have actually dropped since the years of Carter and Reagan. The reason: probably the end of the Cold War. They rose a bit with the War on Terror but stay essentially stable throughout the Bush and Obama administration. A look at the graphic below from a wonderful article by Adam Serwer is enlightening on this point.
Moreover as Serwer points out, the number of attacks does not track with statements of strength or perceptions of weakness. Reagan vs. Carter, Bush vs. Obama. The standard conservative lines on projecting weakness don’t add up. As Serwer writes:
As the details behind the Benghazi attack come to light, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the White House’s initial assessment of the attack as spontaneous rather than preplanned was inaccurate. But behind the comparisons to Jimmy Carter and the references to “peace through strength” is a dubious policy critique: not just that Obama is Carter and Romney is Reagan, but that somehow sufficient man-musk from an American president can dissuade any potential terrorist from laying his finger on an American diplomat.
American policy ought not be made on the basis of unproven references to displays of strength. Doing so risks entangling the US in more wars and military actions that are counterproductive. Certainly, Smith’s argument may have some truth to it, but just listing attacks does not prove that there is any form of deterrence though signaling strength. Until that data is provided, Smith’s article is little more than partisan politicking. Tablet Magazine ought to expect more from its contributors.