Grace, not guns, helped Jackson win in Syria
A novice black politician from Chicago retaught an old lesson this past week to a lot of older, more experienced, and supposedly wiser statesmen and diplomats: Soft words and courtesy can sometimes accomplish more than rattling sabers.Skip to next paragraph
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Jesse Jackson, a Baptist preacher, went to Damascus, called on President Hafez Assad of Syria, asked for the release of United States Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr. . . . and brought the flier safely home.
It was a triumph for the Rev. Mr. Jackson. It converted him automatically from being just another nominal candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination into an important political figure and the hero of the American black community, which now numbers approximately 12 percent of the US population and fields a rapidly growing voting bloc.
It also exposed the limitations on the value of American military power in the present situation in the Middle East.
President Reagan has been attempting to influence Syria by forming a closer military association with Israel, by assembling a naval armada within easy missile and bombing range of Damascus, by flying reconnaissance over Syrian military positions in Lebanon, by bombing and shelling those positions, and by maintaining some 1,400 US marines on the coastal plain below those Syrian positions.
The achievement of this display of military might has been zero. The Syrians have not been intimidated or induced to take their forces out of Lebanon. They have just ignored it, except to shoot back at the American reconnaissance planes over their batteries. They brought down two of those planes, including the one carrying Lieutenant Goodman. They asserted that they would keep him as a prisoner until the US withdrew its armed forces from Lebanon.
It was a golden opportunity for an eager, rising black American politician. President Reagan could obtain the release of Lieutenant Goodman only by paying a price in a negotiated bargain. He was not willing, yet, to negotiate with Syria. Besides, such a step would offend Israel and Israel's American supporters. Israel is still in a state of war with Syria.
The same Israeli factor prevented the leading white candidates, Walter Mondale and John Glenn, from undertaking the mission to Damascus. They would offend Israel's friends and supporters if they had done so.
But Jesse Jackson has negligible Jewish constituents and financial backers. His constituency is the black community. His campaign resources are largely black. The frictions between black and Jewish communities in the US freed him to do what his rivals could not. And he had nothing with which to bargain except that he provided President Assad of Syria with a golden opportunity to appeal to American public opinion over Mr. Reagan's head while displaying a total lack of concern about Mr. Reagan's military posturing.
So Lieutenant Goodman was released to the black American politician who asked politely, after the airman had been held back from the President who threatened with bombs and guns.
Another fact behind all this is that a change in the balance of military power in the Middle East has occurred since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 .