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Politics around Benghazi tragedy distract us from bigger issues in Middle East

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So Carter pressed for more arms sales to the shah, overriding objections from his fellow Democrats. And he soft-peddled human-rights criticisms of Iran, even after 60 Minutes reported that the shah’s secret service was spying on dissident Iranians in America.

He then allowed the deposed shah to come to the United States for medical treatment, which did more than anything else to precipitate the embassy takeover. And he also ordered the ill-fated mission to rescue the hostages, which resulted in the death of eight American servicemen.

The hostages didn’t return until the first day in office of Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter by calling for a new American global assertiveness. Some historians have claimed that Reagan’s campaign – fearful of an “October surprise” to bring the hostages home – plotted with Iran to retain them until after the November elections.

That’s doubtful. But you don’t have to be a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist to see the Iran hostage crisis (and subsequent parallels) as a boon for every Republican presidential candidate since Reagan. To tar your Democratic opponent as a weakling, just link him to Jimmy Carter and the hostages.

So will that strategy work for Mitt Romney? In part, that depends on what investigators turn up about security at the Libyan consulate before the attack – and about the Obama administration’s statements after it. Did the White House turn a deaf ear to pleas for more security, as GOP critics have claimed? And did administration officials deceptively attribute the attack to spontaneous anti-American mobs, even though it now seems to have been a premeditated strike by a militia with possible connections to Al Qaeda?

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