Algiers — Whatever its consequences, United States diplomats feel the recent hijacking of the TWA plane by militant Lebanese Shiite Muslims shows the US that it must try harder to make -- and keep -- friends among third-world countries like Algeria. Senior Algerian security officials negotiated the release of over 60 people, mostly Americans, from the Trans World Airlines plane during its second stopover here June 15-16.
Their success recalled the many months of patient and finally successful Algerian moves to release over 50 US diplomatic hostages in Iran in 1979-80.
President Reagan's reported messages to statesmen in this area asking for help in the hijacking highlighted how few real friends of the US remain in the Afro-Arab world.
It took the release of an Arab hijacking accomplice in Athens by Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou -- in order to save Greek lives by exchanging several Greeks on the plane for the one Arab -- to trigger release of the Americans.
But then the plane left Algiers for its third trip to Beirut, a development that no one here regretted more than US Ambassador to Algeria Michael Newlin.
``While the hijacked plane was here,'' said an official, ``there was a chance to influence things favorably. In Beirut, it's a different ball game with different players. Few of them have third world credentials as impeccably radical as Algeria's, yet at the same time as well disposed towards the US and all the other players.''
Former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, is said to have reminded Vice President George Bush, ``Never do anything in the Mideast without first checking with Algiers.''
Mr. Kissinger himself did just that on several of his Mideast peacemaking trips in the mid-1970s. ``If you want to find out what the Arab `radicals' are thinking,'' he said once, ``go to Algiers.''
Events during Mr. Newlin's term as ambasssador illustrate well why Algeria is the kind of third-world country with which the US can differ on issues like Israel or Nicaragua, yet keep as a friend.
The Reagan administration has had its ups and downs with Algeria. In January, 1981 the new US administration warmly thanked the Algerians for their help in Iran -- but gave them an undiplomatic slap by announcing a major arms deal with Algeria's royal neighbor and rival, King Hassan of Morocco.
``That was incredible insensitivity,'' acknowledges one US diplomat no longer in north Africa. The deal was announced as Algeria and Morocco entered the sixth year of a bitter proxy war over whether Morocco or the Algerian-backed Polisario independence movement should take over the former Spanish Sahara.
US-Algerian relations looked unpromising in early 1981. But by this spring Algerian President Chadli Benjedid was welcomed on a highly successful official visit to the US. This was a first by an Algerian President.
``Everyone appreciated the prestige of President Chadli's visit for Algerians,'' said a Western-educated Algerian professional.
``But, once again, it was spoiled for us this month. A senior US senator [Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana] visited Morocco and said the US is Morocco's ally in the Sahara War.''
Between the Reagan administration's 1981 rebuff of Algeria and the new ``Iranian hostage crisis,'' as Western insiders call Algeria's recent secret efforts to free Western hostages taken by pro-Iranian kidnappers in Lebanon, there runs a little known story.
And it has a moral: Algeria and the US matter to each other.
In 1978, President Benjedid was the choice of Algeria's politically powerful armed forces and the ruling party, the National Liberation Front. President Chadli, as Algerians call him, represented a new style among north African leaders. Despite his lack of experience, most Algerians welcomed his consensus-type rule.
Before Benjedid, their leaders had been the mercurial Ahmed Ben Bella, now a political exile, and the austere, abrasive President Houari Boumedienne, who committed Algerian forces in two Arab wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973.
Benjedid says little about Israel or the Middle East. His easier style, translated into economics, spells liberalization. Mr. Boumedienne's socialist dogmas were softened and some capitalism now flourishes here.
After some not-entirely successful efforts to solve US-Algerian trade problems, relations slowly improved. American visitors like ex-Central Intelligence Agency chief Vernon Walters -- now US ambassador to the UN -- began to study means by which the US might show Algeria more appreciation.
One was the sale of several Hercules C-130 transport planes to a country whose expanding population of 21 million and large Army need to be more mobile. The US Congress recently cleared Algeria as a possible customer for US arms sales. US and Algerian exasperation over Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi's August 1984 ``union'' agreement with his old adversary, Morocco's King Hassan, also helped Washington and Algiers to draw closer.
Now, ``The Moroccan-Libyan engagement is nearly on the rocks, and it looks like there won't be a marriage,'' said one Algerian diplomat.
Algeria's still rather timid friendship with an America whose Mideast and Latin American policies it resolutely opposes, could possibly improve with some thoughtful care by both sides.
The writer, a former Monitor staff correspondent, is now an ABC News correspondent based in London and specializing in the Middle East.