This weekend marks the thirty-third anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Embassy hostage crisis; there is much about the current Benghazi debacle reminiscent of what happened in Teheran all those years ago.
As a response to both events, the world's superpower acted surprised and then confused. Next, it dithered and mumbled. Historians say that the lack of decisive response to the Iranian hostage crisis led to a subsequent series of tests of American will -- the attacks on the Marine Barracks in Lebanon, the USS Cole, and the Khobar Towers, and the first 1993 Word Trade Center bombing, among others -- and ultimately to the Al Qaeda attacks of 9-11. The Benghazi 9-11 slaughter is just the latest entry on the list.
When leaders have similarly been tested during the history of Western societies, one prevailing leadership quality has always made the difference between chaos – and a respected response: resolve. It was resolve that steeled President Reagan at Reykjavik, that spurred Winston Churchill when he was a lonely voice warning of Hitler's plans, and that hardened Abraham Lincoln's will to win a moral and righteous war.
Resolve -- encompassing the critical leadership traits of willpower, boldness and courage -- is constituted from a reservoir of conviction that a cause is just and that commitment to the cause overrides personal political risks. When a leader is left with an array of less than ideal options, resolve enables focus on the choice that best protects core American interests.
Leaders, acting from a core of resolve, have altered the course of human events. As Mikhail Gorbachev admitted to George Schultz, President Ronald Reagan set in motion the events that would end the Cold War when he refused to negotiate on his Strategic Defense Initiative at Reykjavik. Although the media, scholars, and pundits declared the Reykjavik Summit a failure for Reagan personally, and complained that the United States had lost a historic opportunity to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles, history vindicated Reagan's instinct to just say No.
It is a rare politician who would pass on the opportunity to land a nuclear weapons deal that could be billed as ending Mutually Assured Destruction. Yet President Reagan stood on the principle that weapons reductions needed an insurance policy, and he believed that pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative would provide just that. While pundits rolled their eyes, a New York Times–CBS poll taken the week after Reykjavík showed an 11-point jump (to 72%) in the percentage of Americans who thought that Reagan was successfully handling relations with the Soviet Union.
Presidential candidates today sound as if every phrase has been processed through filter after filter to produce the most politically prudent tones. Once phrases such as "resurgent religious extremists" are uttered, they are gutted of meaning and devoid of accountability.
Cautious advisors and diplomats tried to modify both Reagan's Evil Empire and Brandenburg Gate speeches. When President Reagan ignored instructions to re-word his challenge to Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" between East and West Berlin, he set in motion a monumental chain of events.
Peter Robinson, Reagan speechwriter, tells that Yuri Yarim-Agaev, an exiled Soviet dissident scientist who monitored Soviet compliance with human-rights agreements, characterized the moment as one where "the most powerful man of the world spoke the most powerful words he could have spoken." For Yarim-Agaev and his friends, "Reagan had challenged the empire" and, to them "that meant everything." Dissidents and freedom fighters sensed that "after that speech, everything was in play."
Words matter, and words spoken by the leader of the greatest nation on earth in times of distress matter more: they reveal resolve and leadership -- or the lack of it. As in the days of the Soviet Empire, the world faces a dark, oppressive, backward, totalitarian threat. Forces of Sharia domination are trying to extort Western appeasement in military planning, law enforcement, civil liberties and personal freedom. This crisis demands from the free world a deep sense of defiance. The next American president must have the courage to clearly define the current threat and meet it head on.
American leaders can learn from history's most stubborn defenders of Western liberty. As Winston Churchill challenged us in his Iron Curtain speech:
Opportunity is here and now. To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the after-time. It is necessary that the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war. We must, and I believe we shall, prove ourselves equal to this severe requirement.