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Foreign Policy: Embassy Politics: The Eerie Similarities Between 1980 and 2012

Author: Uri Friedman
September 13, 2012


The debate between Obama and Romney over recent attacks shares a remarkable similarity to those during the race between Carter and Reagan in 1980.

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.

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