Sad as it is for the hostages and their families and for the families of those who died in the attempt, it may well be that the early aborting of the rescue mission in the Iranian desert was a blessing in disguise.
While I am not privy to the detailed plans for the rescue, I very much doubt, from my knowledge of the topography of Tehran and the embassy compound, that the operation could have been carried out without heavy losses among the hostages themselves, among their would-be rescuers, and among Iranians, both militants and innocent bystanders. Rather than having been merely a fiasco, the "rescue" might easily have been a disaster.
We cannot but sympathize deeply with the agony suffered by the hostages and their families, with the exasperation of millions of our fellow citizens who cannot understand why the most powerful nation on Earth should submit to such humiliation, and with the President who bears the ultimate responsibility and who seems impotent if he fails to act and reckless if he does.
Nevertheless, one might have thought we Americans would have learned from Vietnam that even the most powerful nation is not omnipotent and that many problems we confront do not have military solutions. Perhaps, after this latest experience, our leaders and our military may reflect more carefully about the limits to the usefulness of a "rapid deployment force" in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, where all its power may be thwarted by a sandstorm or some other unforeseen hazard.
In any case it seems likely that the failure of this modest military effort may have adjourned the applications of more drastic ones, which scare our allies far more than Iranians or Russians. Our good friend Saudi Arabia has denounced in the strongest terms our "violation of Iranian sovereignty," leaving no room for doubt how any intrusion of a US rapid deployment force, into any country which had not clearly invited it, would be regarded even by our friends in the region.
Our European and Japanese allies have now taken the decision to apply economic sanctions, some at considerable sacrifice or risk to their own interests. Economic sanctions have not in the past proved effective when a nation is united in resisting them. In this case, it will take some time to determine whether their application will help the Iranian fanatics continue to rally the nation behind them, or whether the progressively uncomfortable effect of sanctions will help the pragmatists among Iran's leaders, who would long ago have released the hostages had they been able, to convince the ayatollahs and other political activists that holding them brings more grief than it is worth.
One contribution which the American media, particularly the television networks, could make would be to remove the spotlight from the hostages and their captors, a spotlight which has delivered to the latter every evening a captive international audience and thereby greatly inflated the militants' importance and their political leverage. A more effective formula for the US to apply would be less public grandstanding and more intensive quiet diplomacy.
An even more important reason for reducing the focus on Iran is that this obsessive concentration on the lesser of two dangers serves Soviet interests exactly. It distracts attention from the greater danger represented by the Russians' invasion of Afghanistan and from the sanctions we are endeavoring to mobilize against that invasion. It strengthens pro-Soviet and weakens anti-Soviet forces inside Iran and further adjourns the day when most Iranians may again perceive the Soviet Union rather than the US as the more serious threat to their security.
An underlying and most significant factor in our relations with the Middle East and with the Soviet Union has been dramatically exposed by the resignation of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. That is the incoherent organization of the US government for the conduct of foreign affairs.
Our system works best when there is very close rapport between the President and the secretary of state, as there was between Truman and Acheson, Eisenhower and Dulles, Ford and Kissinger, and when the President permits no other voice to rival that of the secretary in advising him on those aspects of national security.
This has not been the case recently. Vance has had two rivals to whom the President has increasingly chosen to pay heed: first, the national security adviser who presents his news personally to the President each morning and has in many cases advocated a very different policy than the secretary; second, the political advisers in the White House who become very vocal in an election year and who were most responsible for the demeaning and ludicrous about-face on the UN vote in March. Under such circumstances the secretary's resignation was honorable and unavoidable.
It has been the willingness of the President to be guided, in rapid alternation, by several foreign policy advisers having radically different views and interests -- Vance, Brzezinski, Strauss, Jordan -- which has so confused both our allies and our adversaries, and has conveyed the extremely dangerous impression that our leadership is vacillating and unreliable.
The excellent appointment of Senator Edmund Muskie, with a firm base in the Congress and a strong national constituency, gives promise that this weakness will be overcome. He has said that the President left in his mind no doubt that he will be the principal foreign policy spokesman. Let us hope that henceforth the President and the new secretary will make certain that the US speaks to the rest of the world with a single, consistent, convincing voice.