The release of Navy pilot Robert Goodman by Syrian President Hafez Assad is the first good news out of the Middle East in a long time. President Reagan and Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale were right to welcome the pilot's freedom and to acknowledge the Rev. Jesse Jackson's role in securing it.
Release of one hostage, however, does not erase the recent loss of 241 American lives in Lebanon or the hardships of the other peacekeeper forces. If anything, it can only add to the consensus steadily gathering force against the continuing Marine presence in Lebanon, which itself appears to be a symbol of an American policy going nowhere in the Middle East, at heavy cost.
President Assad had something to gain, at the relatively low price of one hostage, in a week's attention on American and European television. Assad has gone back on the Syrian assertion that Goodman would not be released until after US warships left Lebanese shores. If the Reagan administration chooses, it can consture the pilot's release as a gesture that diplomacy may succeed where force has proved frustrating.
For Mr. Jackson, the mission's success can only help his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. How it will actually translate into votes is uncertain. But blacks generally feel a tremendous pride in the outcome, Democratic professionals say, and Jackson's credibility as a candidate should rise. Many blacks might have liked Jackson but had felt, hitherto, he was off on a lost cause in seeking the nation's highest office. Now in their view he has gained a substantial achievement, whatever his actual prospects.
Among the rest of the electorate, Jackson can claim a leg up as long as Lebanon continues to be a major election issue. In debates and forums, Jackson -- who had never held elected public office before seeking the presidency -- has gained a talking point in the immediate controversy that the others, four sitting senators and a former governor, senator, and vice-president, do not have.
The pilot's release upstaged somewhat Mondale's major foreign policy speech yesterday. Mondale had planned his noon Washington address as the 1984 kickoff for his campaign. Mondale set forth the third of his three major campaign theses -- to build "a more competitive economy," to create "a just society," and to secure "a safer world." Mondale sees achieving a safer world, through arms control, as the most solemn of the next president's responsibilities. The public has been looking to Mondale, as front-runner, to outline alternatives to Reagan's foreign policy. Mondale's message could only bediffused on a day when Jackson's mission to Damascus commanded the headlines.
When the excitement over Goodman's release dies down and the Democratic political ramifications have been sorted through, the challenge of USpolicy in the Middle East will remain. The region would have been at the top of this week's White House and congressional agenda, whatever the outcome of Jackson's trek.
In the context of Mr. Reagan's traditional "carrot and stick" approach to the Syrians, with all the military force and diplomatic finesse at the President's command, the Jackson success looks ironic. How interesting that a man of the cloth, in the black civil rights tradition -- with neither political nor governmental authority behind him -- could play a mediating role that others could or would not attempt. Jackson risked rejection and a thorough discrediting of his presidential campaign.
Where so many experts, inside and outside the administration, have seen little hope that a reconciliation in Lebanon can be worked out, why not a more direct approach by President Reagan orhis representatives? The conventional wisdom of choosing up sides -- the US, the Israelis, Gemayel, and the Phalangists against the Syrians, Soviets, Palestinians, and various Muslim groups -- has so far produced only gridlock, with the Marines and other peacekeepers in direct jeopardy, and the American public increasingly concerned.