Engrossing as it is for Americans and others to rehash daring exploits -- failed or successful -- we need to keep our attention on the main issues. Can the United States and Iran resolve their differences and get back to some kind of normal relations? Can Iran's elected government avert civil war? Can Western Europe and Japan assure their oil supplies until they develop sufficient nuclear-solar-coal backup? Can further progress be made on the Arab-Israeli dispute, which aggravates the energy uncertainty and irritates US ties with even the moderate Muslim states? Can the Western allies maintain unity in dealing with an increasingly powerful Soviet Union? Will Moscow learn in Afghanistan what Washington learned in Vietnam about the limits of superpower strength?
Let's examine the first of these questions.
Washington and Tehran seem further apart than ever. Had the hostage rescue mission succeeded, the Carter administration would have been able to drop pressure on its allies for trade sanctions and move gradually toward resolution of differences with the Bani-Sadr government. Now the situation appears to be back to where it started, or worse. We need a fresh initiative from a party outside the quarrel.
If there is to be a goal for Western trade sanctions it should be pressure on the Iranian Revolutionary Council to accept immediate reactivation of the United Nations commission. That would mean resurrection of the idea of simultaneous release of the hostages along with publication of the commission's report on the Shah's rule. As matters now stand, the only aim of Western sanctions is release of the hostages, period. Legally, that is a just aim. Under international law there is no justification for imprisoning diplomats. But we have had nearly six months of pragnatic proof that such legal logic has not freed the hostages. So the two-pronged UN commission plan still seems the most practical one available now that the hostages have been split up and rescue made even more difficult.
But even that practicality gets us nowhere if the relatively pragmatic Bani-Sadr says the time is not ripe for resumption of the UN commission work. He was not able to deliver both his Revolutionary Council and student captors on that deal when the climate was better than it is today. So what further steps make sense? Two seem worth pursuing:
(1) Washington needs to keep a carrot quietly visible alongside the stick of a Western trade boycott and possible military steps. Mr. Carter should assure the three power centers in Tehran through all intermediaries possible that once the hostages are freed the United States plans no further retaliation. He should, in fact, reinforce a willingness to go as far as Bani-Sadr and the new parliament are willing to restore correct diplomatic and trade relations.
(2) Further honest broker efforts are needed to get the Revolutionary Council and Ayatollah Khomeini to turn their attention to the advantages of a UN commission deal. It would be useful if two such countries as France and Algeria would press this idea in Tehran. France, because it is known as a sometimes reluctant ally of Washington and because it provided both education and home in exile for Bani-Sadr and Khomeini. Algeria, because it is known as an Islamic puritan, but is far enough removed from Iran not to be suspect, as Iraq and Egypt are for partisanship and most of the other Arab oil states are for conservatism.
It is important to have third-party honest-brokering for new momentum as much for Iran's sake as for America's. If Washington has hostages and prestige to worry about at present -- and the crucial subject of the Persian Gulf oil lifeline and the stability of Saudi Arabia in future -- Iran has to worry about its very existence as a state. Monitor correspondent Ned Temko reports from Tehran that jubilation over the failed rescue raid has only temporarily delayed slippage toward civil war. No nation would profit from that. Certainly not the West. Nor Iraq, which might be tempted to consume more than it could control. Nor even Moscow. If planners in the Kremlin were tempted to move into a vacuum, they would certainly force a showdown with even reluctant West Europeans as well as the US.
A lot has been said in the past few days about the Carter administration's pressure on its allies. Some very silly reports have appeared in both US and European-Japanese news media. Basically, the Western leadership is more united than these reports would indicate. The Euro-Japanese allies are naturally uncomfortable about a conflict in which they are not directly involved -- but in which their economic well-being ism so directly involved. But Mr. Carter did not , as so many reports have asserted, betray his colleagues by asking them for trade sanctions and then taking a military action when he had promised not to. What the Western leaders feared was military confrontation: mining of harbors, stopping and searching of ships, a commando raid on Kharg Island. The abortive rescue mission did not fit this definition. West Germany, Japan, Britain, and the Netherlands have all had to deal with questions of rescuing hostages. Certainly, the still half-shrouded rescue raid could have run risks of starting a wider conflict. It took only one man riding in a car to start World War I. But the climate is different today. And the 90-man commando force was bent on rescue, not a coup attempt or sabotage.
Two further questions need to be discussed: President Carter's judgment and American prestige and leadership.
First, judgment. Until all the information about the planning of the failed raid is made public, no one can assess the President's decision to go ahead with any certainty. In this instance we are only a little better off playing Monday morning quarterback than were those playing Friday morning quarterback. But several things can be said with some certainty. The raid was not made as a result of a rash or hasty decision. Months of planning and practice apparently preceded it. In those months the President had methodically tried all other options: third-party talks, keeping the Iranian Embassy open in Washington, UN action, World Court action, the UN commission, indirect bargaining with President Bani-Sadr.
In magnitude this failure was far smaller in scale than the Bay of Pigs disaster, where the US was involved in an actual attempt to overthrow a government by invasion. And we went on to learn from and put that failure in perspective -- just as we did the tragic space rocket fire, the frustration of the U-2 shoot-down, the capture of the Pueblo, and the expensive rescue of the Mayaguez prisoners.
Much has been made now, as it was in each of those periods, of "irreparable" damage to American prestige. But experience indicates that the final word on that subject always lies in what the United States does next. It's well to remember that Harry Truman was mercilessly criticized for his judgment on relieving General MacArthur, not to mention the Korean War itself. Dwight Eisenhower had his U-2, recessions, and doubtful "missile gap." John Kennedy suffered slings and arrows for not controlling the Congress and for the Bay of Pigs. Vietnam was a blunder big enough for the next three presidents to share.
As a result of all of these, and scores of other factors, the United States is looked at more realistically in today's world than it was in the halcyon days of World War II and immediately thereafter. The failure in the salt desert of Iran will likely have only a temporary further effect on this picture of Sir Galahad with warts.
What remains important is that Washington not lurch toward either a head-in-sand approach nor a trigger-happy one. West European leaders have been pictured as fearing that Mr. Carter might become bellicose. Actually several important European heads of government have worried privately just the opposite. They feared the US had "over-learned" the lesson of Vietnam, and that the Carter administration showed lack of will in not intervening in Angola, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Time seems to be proving this view wrong, just as time proved Eisenhower right in restraining Vice-President Nixon and Secretary of State Dulles from intervening in Vietnam in the '50s. Angola seems now to be tiring of Cuban-Soviet influence. Instead of becoming a base for expanding Soviet influence in Southern Africa, Angola seems to be more likely now to follow the lead of Zimbabwe and Mozambique in becoming nonaligned with trade ties to the West. Fear that Yemen would eventually subvert the Saudi government seems to be abating. Iraq has moved back from its closeness to Moscow toward a more middle position.
In short, the ancient British practice of muddling through may not be so out of date as many suppose.
A country which prides itself on mechanical aptitude cannot take lightly the failure of a missile launch, of an electronic "fence" in Vietnam, of a Pentagon elevator delaying Secretary McNamara's retirement ceremony, or of helicopters in the Iran desert. But we must realize that we have survived all these and moved on to remedy the mistakes. That is what is needed now. The Iranian revolution, like many revolutions before it, may need to run its course before sensible policies return. It emerges from a period of rule that combined the virtues of Kemal Ataturk's enforced modernization with the excesses and moral blindness of Louis XIV. And the US is cast in the role of having restored and supported the Bourbons. A swift but calm effort by intermediaries is needed to get both sides past their present mind-sets.