What we pay presidents for
It seems to me to be beyond serious question that President Carter did the immediately popular thing when he gave the order to go ahead with the effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran.
The presumed popularity of that decision is confirmed by the fact that it received the instant approval of his two main Republican rivals for the presidency, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and was not even seriously questioned by his rival from his own party, Edward Kennedy. Richard Nixon came in from the sidelines with full approval.
The only candidate who actually raised an immediate question about the action was independent John Anderson who said he was "at a loss on what our government was trying to do" and thought it came "very close to violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the War Powers Act."
Messrs. Reagan and Bush both seemed to think that had they been in the Oval Office instead of Mr. Carter they would have done the same thing, but earlier. That is a dubious assumption. Things look differently from the chilly loneliness of the office. No man can possibly know how he would make one of those truly difficult decisions until he is there. Think of all those things Mr. Carter was going to do differently -- before he got there.
But both Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush, while thinking they would have moved sooner , applauded the decision.
It is reasonable to assume that Messrs. Reagan, Bush, Nixon, and Kennedy all refrained from questioning the decision because they believed it to be popular and that they would suffer rather than gain politically had they challenged the decision itself. And Messrs. Reagan, Bush, Nixon, and Kennedy are all experienced and frequently successful readers of the popular need.
So my premise about the affair of the rescue mission that failed is that the decision to make the attempt fitted and indeed expressed the popular mood of the times.
But are presidents paid to make popular decisions?
The most unpopular decision a president has made in my personal experience in 50 years in jounalism was Harry Truman's dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Mr. Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, remarked in retelling the story that, "as expected, the political roof fell in."
It did. Mr. Truman was pilloried by most politicians and in most newspapers. General MacArthur had been a bona fide national hero. And yet, few would today question the wisdom, even the necessity, of that action. The general had disobeyed deliberately an order from his commanding officer. The issue was the authority of the presidential office. Mr. Truman is respected today largely because he, so often, did what seemed to him to be the right thing, no matter how unpopular.
I do not know at the time this is being written what were the specific reasons why Cyrus Vance resigned the secretaryship of state on April 21. He says in his letter of resignation that he could not approve the rescue mission and hence could not stay on at his Cabinet post effectively. Mr. Carter accepted the resignation agreeing that Mr. Vance was correct in resigning. Both letters mention reasons Mr. Vance had explained to Mr. Carter. Neither letter discloses those reasons.
But we do know the following about Mr. Vance:
He occupied a subordinate position at the Department of Defense during the Vietnam war.He started out approving of the US involvement in Vietnam but came gradually to believe that it was a mistake and that the involvement should be ended. But he did not resign over the issue. Conceivably, had he resigned, he might have speeded the end of the involvement.
Any action against Iran of a military nature, whether it be for the purpose of a rescue or to bring pressure to bear on Iran, is bound to increase a sense of hostility between Iran and the United States, is bound to open opportunities for Moscow to seek easier relations with Iran, is bound to divert attention from Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan (still going on), and is likely to damage US relations with the whole of Islam.
There has been much talk of other military measures which might be taken against Iran should the hostages continue to be held in captivity. All such actions are likely to be popular in the short run. Yet all of them are open to the same objection which existed in the attempt to rescue the hostages. The tendency of any mining of Iranian harbors, or blockading of the oil routes, would be to push Iran towards Moscow, injure US relations with the Islamic countries, and alienate the allies in Western Europe and Japan.
By resigning Mr. Vance raises a question about any such further military action against Iran. Congress will now ask questions. The effect is more likely to restrain Mr. Carter from such further action than anything Mr. Vance could say or do while still in office.