During his first year as president, he said: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Within a couple of years, that island of stability had become a caldron of chaos. Revolutionaries deposed the shah and seized American hostages, launching a crisis that would become an obsession for the United States and a political disaster for Mr. Carter.
Around the same time, another country supplied another shock. Neither Carter nor Gerald Ford had talked about Afghanistan during their 1976 contest. In fact, “Afghanistanism” was a slang term for excessive concern with unimportant parts of the world.
In December 1979, Afghanistan suddenly became important when the Soviet Union invaded. Carter, who had once spoken of an “inordinate fear of communism,” said that the invasion “has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”
CIA-backed rebels eventually pushed the Soviets out, and Afghanistan again receded from the American mind. In the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, the name of the country never came up. Even more striking in hindsight is that the issue of terrorism got only fleeting attention from the candidates. Instead of arguing about who would get tougher against our enemies, candidate George W. Bush said – and Vice President Al Gore agreed – that the US should be a strong but “humble nation.”