Obama is not weak on terrorism

And conservative critics who say he is are proving they have very-short, very-partisan memories

The U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 23, 1983.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Jim Bourdier)

What if all of the following happened on the watch of one president of the United States?

* A U.S. embassy is bombed in the Middle East. Seventeen Americans are among the 63 killed. The president condemns the attack but does not retaliate.

* A U.S. Marine barracks in the Middle East is bombed. Two hundred and forty one Marines die and 100+ more are wounded — the worst day since Iwo Jima. The president calls it the saddest day of his presidency, maybe his life — but calls off a retaliatory attack for fear of harming relations with the Arab world. The president later orders a full retreat from that country.

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* A second U.S. embassy is bombed in another Middle Eastern country. The president takes no retaliatory action.

* A top American official — the CIA station chief in a Middle Eastern country — is kidnapped. The U.S. decides that to free the hostages, it could sell weapons to a nation linked to the hostage takers — even though the nation is considered a terrorist state. The CIA chief eventually dies, and the weapons scheme blows up in the administration's face.

* Another U.S. embassy facility in the Middle East is attacked. Two U.S. servicemen are among the 24 people killed. Once again, the president orders no military response.

* A Middle Eastern hijacking leaves two U.S. government personnel dead. There is no American military response.

* Another Middle Eastern hijacking leaves a U.S. Navy serviceman dead. Terrorists dump his body on an airport tarmac. There is no American military response.

* An entire cruise ship is hijacked in the Mediterranean. A 69-year old American tourist is killed and shoved into the sea. The hijackers later flee on a jet, but instead of killing them, the U.S. forces the plane down so the terrorists can be dealt with in court.

* Airports in Rome and Vienna are attacked. Twenty people are killed, including five Americans. The U.S. knows who did it, but instead of retaliating, sends planes to that country's coast to patrol it.

If all of those things happened in rapid succession on a single president's watch, would you consider that president timid, soft on terrorism, unwilling to defend American values? Would you say that freedom and American values were being appropriately defended by the strongest nation on Earth?

Because the thing is, all of those things did happen — within a mere 33-month period between April 1983 and January 1986.

After the worst attack — the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut — the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, said that "the United States will not be intimidated by terrorists." But he did little to stop them, and the attacks kept coming and coming.

This is relevant because the Benghazi terror attack has given Republicans fodder to charge that President Obama is weak on terrorism. The implication is that when it comes to dealing with terrorists, Republicans are the ones with backbone. Republicans good. Democrats bad.

But let's get real: Rare are the instances when history is as binary as some on both left and right would have you believe.

Of course, our tragic and infuriating experience with Islamic terrorism pre-dates Reagan. Jimmy Carter was helpless during a 444-day standoff with Iran after it took hostages in our Tehran embassy. Carter ordered a military mission to rescue them — Operation Eagle Claw — but eight U.S. troops were killed in the Iranian desert when a helicopter collided with a refueling plane.

Today, Jimmy Carter is seen as feckless and weak. But it was the inaction of his successor, Ronald Reagan, that Osama bin Laden cited as an example of American weakness. In a 1998 interview with ABC News, the al Qaeda leader claimed that weakness "was proven in Beirut in 1983, when the Marines fled."

The terror attacks continued on Bill Clinton's watch: the 1993 World Trade Center attack (6 killed), Khobar Towers (19 Americans killed), the attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (223 dead, including 12 Americans) and the U.S.S. Cole (17 Americans killed). All of this led, of course, to September 11, 2001. It's a sad history that has shamed presidents of both parties for decades now; only the most ignorant or blindly partisan among us would claim otherwise.

And as for the charge leveled by some conservatives that Obama coddles Muslims — well, this is news to Muslims. Much of the Muslim world has actually soured on America ever since Barack Obama was sworn in, according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes research survey:

Favorable view of the United States:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Country2009 Favorable2012 Favorable

Source: PewGlobal.org

This certainly doesn't support the right-wing narrative that Obama is a coddler of Muslims. And remember, this deepening antipathy to America comes even as the U.S. has gotten out of Iraq and winds down the long Afghan war.

The administration's politicizing of Benghazi is a travesty. With an election looming, the White House downplayed the nature of the terror attack, changed the narrative, and ran out the clock. But the broader accusation that this administration's overall response to terrorism is weak, or "the worst ever," simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Republicans who make this claim ignore their own sad legacy in this regard — not that I blame them.

Instead, I urge them to take an honest, objective look into the rearview mirror of history.

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Paul Brandus

An award-winning member of the White House press corps, Paul Brandus founded WestWingReports.com (@WestWingReport) and provides reports for media outlets around the United States and overseas. His career spans network television, Wall Street, and several years as a foreign correspondent based in Moscow, where he covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for NBC Radio and the award-winning business and economics program Marketplace. He has traveled to 53 countries on five continents and has reported from, among other places, Iraq, Chechnya, China, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.