A comment by “RickZ” about the failed Iran hostage rescue attempt in the waning days of the Carter administration prompted this reply from me, referring to a post I wrote several years ago on the anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw (the name of the doomed rescue effort).
In that post of mine I discussed an article from The Atlantic about the rescue, and now I’m going to quote a portion of that article that I think especially relevant to what happened (or failed to happen) on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi. The Iran rescue mission was famous for a series of disasters that aborted it before the rescuers ever got to Tehran, but reading the following information about it makes me wonder whether things might actually have gone worse (although it’s hard to believe that could be possible) if the forces had had a chance to fulfill the mission as planned—and limited—by then-President Carter.
Compare and contrast to Benghazi:
Another presidential directive concerned the use of nonlethal riot-control agents. Given that the shah’s occasionally violent riot control during the revolution was now Exhibit A in Iran’s human-rights case against the former regime and America, Carter wanted to avoid killing Iranians, so he had insisted that if a hostile crowd formed during the raid, Delta should attempt to control it without shooting people. Burruss considered this ridiculous. He and his men were going to assault a guarded compound in the middle of a city of more than 5 million people, most of them presumed to be aggressively hostile. It was unbelievably risky; everyone on the mission knew there was a very good chance they would not get home alive. Wade Ishmoto, a Delta captain who worked with the unit’s intelligence division, had joked, “The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in.” And Carter had the idea that this vastly outnumbered force was first going to try holding off the city with nonviolent crowd control? Burruss understood the president’s thinking on this, but with their hides so nakedly on the line, shouldn’t they be free to decide how best to defend themselves? He had complained about the directive to General Jones, who had said he would look into it, but the answer had come back “No, the president insists.” So Burruss had made his own peace with it. He had with him one tear-gas grenade—one—which he intended to throw as soon as necessary; he would then use its smoke as a marker to call in devastatingly lethal 40 mm AC-130 gunship fire.
Both incidents involved violence against American diplomats in a country that had recently seen a revolution against forces previously friendly to the US and now Islamicist and hostile. The Iranian hostages had been in captivity for quite some time when the rescue was attempted; in Benghazi the incident happened in a single less-than-24-hour period, and involved a firefight and deaths. The Benghazi violence was apparently viewed in real time by the administration; Carter had no such capabilities. Carter approved a rescue mission; Obama failed to do so.
But the similarity—at least as far as I can determine, trying to fill in the blanks—was that the motivation to appear peaceful and friendly resulted in a decision to not fire on the citizens of the host country, even if the situation warranted it, and even at the risk of American lives. The idée fixe remains.