Here's How Presidents Have Responded To Terrorism
Speaking sorrowfully to the nation from the White House last week, President Biden lengthened a chain that was already far too long, a chain of presidential remorse — and vows of revenge — over the loss of American lives in faraway conflicts few Americans understand.
"We will not forgive, and we will not forget," said Biden, with an intensity he rarely shows, speaking of the deaths of 13 U.S. military personnel at the Abbey Gate to the Kabul airport are the latest additions to an honor roll that was also far too long.
"We will hunt you down and make you pay."
The U.S. did hit back over the weekend with drone strikes that killed ISIS-K planners and stopped a car bomb, the U.S. government said. Still, even in the final day of the U.S. military withdrawal, servicemembers remained in harm's way, as they repelled rocket attacks on the Kabul airport.
It speaks to the vulnerability of these front-liners and captures the nature and persistence of these conflicts over decades in conflicts that have emerged across a wide swath of the world — from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea south to the shores of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and eastward to the tribal areas of Pakistan.
The reactions of U.S. presidents have consistently paired outrage with promises of revenge. They have used remarkably similar language, but there has been far less consistency in the delivery of actual retaliation.
Decades of mixed results
The suicide bombing that claimed the lives of the 13 U.S. servicemembers at the Kabul airport calls forth once more the feeling of helplessness that has grown familiar over the years.
After Vietnam, many presumed the U.S. would pull back from military adventures abroad.
Yet every president since has had to face at least some form of challenge, not from another superpower or from global communism, but from a patchwork of smaller countries and non-state actors.
Jimmy Carter: Iran
Within a few years of the fall of Saigon, Americans were traumatized by the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Six months later, in April 1980, there were still 52 Americans being held hostage by militants at the embassy, and then-President Jimmy Carter had to go on TV to reveal that an attempted rescue had been aborted in the Iranian desert.
Eight U.S. service personnel had been killed when two of the helicopters involved collided.
"I know our entire nation feels the deep gratitude I feel for the brave men who were prepared to rescue their fellow Americans," Carter said. "I also know that the nation shares not only my disappointment... but also my determination to persevere and to bring all our hostages home to freedom."
They would come home, but not until the Inauguration Day of Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan: Beirut
Ronald Reagan often seemed to live a charmed life in the White House, surviving an assassination attempt and various scandals. But he could not escape the hard choices of foreign intervention.
When the United Nations formed a multi-national force to subdue warring factions in Lebanon in 1982, Reagan's Pentagon brass had doubts. But Reagan he saw it as another front in the war against communism.
"Can the United States or the Free World stand by and see the Middle East incorporated into the Soviet bloc?" Reagan asked in his weekly radio address.
The Marines in Beirut were called peacekeepers, but many questioned how necessary their mission really was. Questions grew louder after a suicide bomber largely destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April of 1983, killing 17 American and scores of Lebanese. Congress debated using the War Powers Act to get the Marines out that summer, but a compromise was reached to let them stay another 18 months.
When a reporter asked Reagan why Marines were there, being picked off by snipers, the president said the region was "vitally important to the security of the United States and the Western world ... to further the peace process in the Middle East."
But in October, another suicide bomber, driving a construction truck with tons of explosives, penetrated the Marines' perimeter and obliterated a barracks where much of the contingent lay asleep. Nearly 300 people were killed, including 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service personnel. It was the largest loss of life the Corps had suffered in a single attack since Iwo Jima in 1945.
Writing in his memoir years later, Reagan would call this "the saddest day of my presidency, perhaps the saddest day of my life."
On the night of the attack, the president stood in a downpour on an Air Force tarmac, calling the "despicable act" evidence of the "bestial nature of those who would assume power if they could have their way and drive us out of that area."
"We must be more determined than ever that they cannot take over that vital and strategic part of the earth," Reagan said.
The former president was good at soothing even the rawest of wounds and even better at projecting toughness. When he vowed retaliation against those responsible for the Beirut bombing, the nation nodded with approval. He emerged from the tragedy with little visible damage in the polls. Support for the mission even ticked up a bit in some surveys.
Four months later, in February of his re-election year, without having launched any retaliatory strikes, Reagan pulled the remaining Marines out. That did cost him in the polls, but only briefly. In November, he won a second term carrying 49 states.
George H.W. Bush: The War on Terror and Iraq
The long-running series of presidents expressing shock, sadness and resolve continued with Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush.
In August of 1990, Bush had to explain how Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had seized his neighbor state of Kuwait and forced the U.S. to go to war.
The ensuing conflict would eventually produce mostly good news for Bush, but it also led to later unrest around the region, influencing among others the scion of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family named Osama bin Laden.
Bill Clinton: Africa and the rise of al-Qaida
In October 1993, a still-fresh-in-office President Bill Clinton confronted a debacle of his own in Africa when a mission supporting famine relief in Mogadishu, Somalia, went badly awry. Two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down and a daylong firefight killed 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis.
Clinton went on TV to remind the country why troops were there in the first place (sent by his predecessor) and to promise they would all be out within six months.
Much later in his presidency, in August of 1998 when he was battling impeachment, Clinton had to tell the American people that truck bombers had leveled the American embassies in two East African capitals.
A dozen Americans were among the 224 people killed in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Overall, more than 4,500 people were injured. In the days to come, Americans would be introduced for the first time to the name of bin Laden and his organization, al-Qaida.
"These acts of terrorist violence are abhorrent; they are inhuman," Clinton said, speaking from the Rose Garden and recalling Reagan's reference to bestial adversaries 15 years earlier. "We will bring all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter how long it takes."
Clinton responded further by sending cruise missiles into the suspected camps of al-Qaida, far away across the Indian Ocean in Afghanistan. Bin Laden's group was operating there in a safe haven provided by the ruling Islamist fundamentalists known as the Taliban, winners of a civil war that had raged after the ouster of the Soviet military in 1989.
Clinton's cruise missile strikes did little long-term damage, however. Bin Laden had, by some accounts, already concluded from the 1983 Beirut bombing that the U.S. response to such provocations would be limited. Al Qaeda felt safe as it plotted in Afghanistan for terror attacks on the U.S. itself.
George W. Bush: 9/11 and Iraq
President George W. Bush would give the most shell-shocked White House speech of all in responding to those attacks, which took nearly 3,000 American lives on Sept. 11, 2001.
This time, the suicide bombers had hijacked aircraft to crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bush, of course, would promise retribution, and he would spend most of his remaining seven-and-a-half years in office trying to make good on that promise.
While his primary focus would be on Iraq, where he insisted Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — though none were ever found — Bush began his "War on Terror" by sending U.S. forces to Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and depose the Taliban. And so began America's longest war.
Barack Obama: Drones, bin Laden and Benghazi
President Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq (he was a state legislator in Illinois when that war began), but saw the mission in Afghanistan as more justifiable. In his first year as president, 2009, he ordered a surge in the U.S. force, which soon reached 100,000 with an attendant increase in casualties.
Combat deaths had risen in six of the previous years, but with the surge that number doubled to 310 a year. It reached nearly 500 before gradually tapering off as Obama started drawing down the troop commitment in 2011. He announced U.S. troops would no longer have a combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014.
Obama pursued his own version of the War on Terror, with the Navy SEALs mission that killed Osama bin Laden and a flock of drone strikes that received far less attention.
In 2012, however, Obama had the unenviable task of explaining how the U.S. had been so vulnerable to a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse...the values we stand for," said Obama. "We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done."
Obama also addressed the nation on atrocities in Syria in September 2013, but not to explain a troop commitment.
"My answer is simple," Obama said then, "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan."
Trump: ISIS and drawing back
There were still U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan when Donald Trump succeeded Obama in January 2017. Trump had campaigned on bring U.S. forces home, putting an end to "forever wars."
He shrank the U.S. footprint in the region, hunting individual figures primarily with airstrikes, such as the one that killed Iranian military kingpin Quassem Soleimani just after New Year's 2020. ISIS leader Abu Bakr at-Baghdadi died in a raid on his Syrian compound by U.S. forces in 2019.
But Trump was eager to be out of Afghanistan entirely, pushing the Pentagon to get it done. At one point in mid-2019 he was pressing for a meeting with the Taliban to be held at Camp David, according to John Bolton, who was Trump's national security advisor at the time.
Instead, Trump had his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, negotiate an exit deal with the Taliban in Doha, a negotiation that did not involve the Afghan government. It set a May 1, 2021 deadline for U.S. withdrawal so long as the Taliban did not attack U.S. personnel.
Biden: Exit from Afghanistan
Biden delayed, but did not reverse this process, saying he would not pass the war in Afghanistan on to a fifth president.
Having set Tuesday as the pullout date, having struck his own version of Trump's deal with the Taliban to solicit their cooperation in the U.S. exit, Biden has so far insisted on maintaining that deadline.
This week, as we watch that war's deeply disturbing conclusion, the bombings that killed 13 Americans were attributed to ISIS-K, a local affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The group is said to have its roots in the original al-Qaida that operated in Afghanistan in the 1990s. And so, it would seem, the cycle comes around.
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