Americans on the Shelf

WHEN the two American hostages, Robert Polhill and Frank Reed, were released in April, Martin Kramer, Israeli expert on terrorism, commented that these were expendable hostages, held ``on the shelf.'' They could be released because others were held who could be used to gain the captors' objectives. If this analysis is valid, it makes bleak the prospects for a resolution of the hostage crisis unrelated to the broader issues of the region, and compounds the dilemma facing President Bush. The idea that innocent individuals can be held indefinitely as potential chips in a Middle East bargaining game is diabolical to Americans. Yet in that concept lies the key to understanding key aspects of the hostage problem: the thinking of hostage takers, the cruel dilemma for Washington policymakers, and the significance of the roles of Syria and Iran.

To the captors, the use of hostages is logical. It is the weapon of the weak against the strong; it is the means to pressure those who are perceived to have the power. Whether it be to seek the return of an exiled monarch, as in the case of Khomeini and the Shah, to obtain the release of fellow religionists, as with the Lebanese Shiites, or to free members of a clan, the perpetrators see the US as a key. Did not the US put the Shah back on the throne in 1953? Does not the US control the destiny of the states in the Gulf and, above all, of Israel? And is not the US, with its concern for the lives of its citizens, vulnerable to this type of threat and pressure?

For the policymaker in Washington, the dilemma is cruel. President Carter and President Reagan both faced hostage crises. Although they sought to deal with the problem differently, each suffered politically as a result. The policy of the Bush administration not to negotiate with those holding Americans has been established both by principle and experience.

Yet it remains part of the cruel reality of the shadowy world in which the hostages are held that they are not likely to be released without some concessions. It costs little for these groups to continue to hold the Americans. Given the nature of the groups in which tendencies to weakness can be fatal, giving up the hostages is probably exceedingly difficult if the leaders cannot demonstrate some resulting gain.

Syria and Iran have been helpful, but their power, too, may be limited. Syrians have appreciable military assets in Beirut. The Iranians have been the creators and supporters of Shiite groups in Lebanon. These countries can provide the rationale for the release of the hostages that the US cannot. Each has decided that it has interests in courting better relations with the US.

Clearly Damascus and Tehran have expended capital to win the release of Polhill and Reed; they are now seeking signs from Washington that will help them convince hard-liners within their own governments of the value of continuing to negotiate. This leads to further demands by them on the US. The resulting dilemma for the US president is severe.

The ideal solution from the US standpoint is, however, not just the release of the remaining six American hostages - as well as those of other countries - but an end to the cycle of hostage taking and holding. But concessions to the captors, and those who influence them - whether by direct US gestures or through US pressures on Israel to release prisoners - will only continue the cycle unless a solution can be found in Lebanon. As long as groups exist that see their power in holding American and other hostages ``on the shelf,'' the prospect of other seizures remains.

The release of hostages in the Middle East, therefore, becomes not an isolated issue, but one rooted in the struggles in Beirut, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, between Sunni and Shiite. Diplomacy can bring about the freedom of individuals, but until the deeper issues are resolved, the day is still distant when Americans can return without fear of captivity to the lands of the region.

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