Politics and the hostages

The whole story of the American hostages in Tehran provides an example of why some people are wise wnough to put aside the thought of seeking the presidency of the United States.

It is conceivable that at the last possible moment President Carter will extract some political benefit out of the return of the hostages, but if so it will be slight compensation for the anguish he has already suffered over this business. This is one of those situations where it is safer and easier politically to be on the outside playing the role of critic than to be on the inside having to make the decisions, every one of which is likely to turn out to be wrong or subject to damaging criticism even if correct.

Start with the beginning of the story. That was on the day President Carter allowed himself to be talked into letting the former Shah come to New York for medical treatment. It is obvious in retrospect that that was a disastrous mistake. But the Shah had a lot of Republican friends who would have been delighted to accuse Mr. Carter of cruel and inhumane behavoir toward an old friend had he hardened his heart and said no.

Chief among those old Republican friends of the Shah was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who was already on the war path against the Carter administration for its failure to save the Shah's throne the second time around. (It was saved the first time when Washington organized the coup d'etat of 1953 which overthrew Mossadegh and brought the Shah back from exile.)

Had Mr. Carter said no Mr. Kissinger would have had that much more ammunition to use in the Republican cause. Considering Mr. Kissinger's record during the campaign there can be no doubt that he would have used it to the greater glory of his party. No man can accuse Mr. Kissinger of neglecting a promising opportunity for partisanship.

So the story begins with Mr. Carter having to make a decision which could get him into deep political trouble whichever way he went. Probably to say no at that time would have hurt him politically more than what did happen. At least he is not open to the charge of turning his back on a person widely regarded in US political circles as an old "friend."

He tried to protect himself against what did happen by checking with the government in Tehran. He was assured by the Prime Minister of that moment, Mr. Mehdi Bazargan, that the government of IRan could and would protect the US Embassy and its people. At the moment President Carter probably thought that the possible damage from letting the Shah come to New York for medical treatment was less than the certain damage from keeping him out.

And then, of course, Mr. Bazargan lost out in the struggle for power in Tehran. He found that in fact he could not protect the US embassy and its people. The revolution tossed him aside and took the hostages. We have not heard of Mr. Bazargan since. His effort to prevent the seizing of the hostages ruined him politically in Iran.

After that Mr. Carter had the awesome choice of authorizing a military rescue effort, or being accused of failure to take strong measures to rescue the hostages. He was already under damaging political pressure to do something when he agreed to let the rescue effort go forward.

That effort ended in a disaster, but could have been even worse. Suppose the rescue team acutally got to the embassy compound, but failed in getting away. In that case the entire rescue team and all the hostages would have been casualties. The blame would have been even worse than it was for the humiliating failure of the rescue effort.

Now we come fown to the events of the past week. The Iranians tell everyone that the release is imminent. They publicize massively the existence of negotiations. They let everyone know that if their conditions are met, they may let some of the hostages out. And that puts Mr. Carter on the worst spot of the whole story, because he must negotiate in public and hence at a terrible disadvantage.

If the negotiations were to end in failure he would be wide open to the charge of not having been willing to pay a high enough price to bring those Americans home. But if he does meet the asking price he is equally vulnerable to the charge of accepting a national humiliation at the hands of blackmailers.

A happy return of the hostages would perhaps be of some small help to Mr. Carter on the eve of election day.And yet, had he to play the story over again, would he play it for such an outcome?

Anyone with the benefit of hindsight would certainly have first donned his stoutest armor against the inevitable arrows from Henry Kissinger's quiver and then refused to let the Shah enter the United States. But the man in the White House unfortunately has to make decisions like that without benefit of hindsight.

And without hindsight it is difficult to know whch is the lesser evil or the least damaging course.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.