A novice black politician from Chicago retaught an old lesson this past week to a lot of older, more experienced, and supposedly wiser statesmen and diplomats: Soft words and courtesy can sometimes accomplish more than rattling sabers.
Jesse Jackson, a Baptist preacher, went to Damascus, called on President Hafez Assad of Syria, asked for the release of United States Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr. . . . and brought the flier safely home.
It was a triumph for the Rev. Mr. Jackson. It converted him automatically from being just another nominal candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination into an important political figure and the hero of the American black community, which now numbers approximately 12 percent of the US population and fields a rapidly growing voting bloc.
It also exposed the limitations on the value of American military power in the present situation in the Middle East.
President Reagan has been attempting to influence Syria by forming a closer military association with Israel, by assembling a naval armada within easy missile and bombing range of Damascus, by flying reconnaissance over Syrian military positions in Lebanon, by bombing and shelling those positions, and by maintaining some 1,400 US marines on the coastal plain below those Syrian positions.
The achievement of this display of military might has been zero. The Syrians have not been intimidated or induced to take their forces out of Lebanon. They have just ignored it, except to shoot back at the American reconnaissance planes over their batteries. They brought down two of those planes, including the one carrying Lieutenant Goodman. They asserted that they would keep him as a prisoner until the US withdrew its armed forces from Lebanon.
It was a golden opportunity for an eager, rising black American politician. President Reagan could obtain the release of Lieutenant Goodman only by paying a price in a negotiated bargain. He was not willing, yet, to negotiate with Syria. Besides, such a step would offend Israel and Israel's American supporters. Israel is still in a state of war with Syria.
The same Israeli factor prevented the leading white candidates, Walter Mondale and John Glenn, from undertaking the mission to Damascus. They would offend Israel's friends and supporters if they had done so.
But Jesse Jackson has negligible Jewish constituents and financial backers. His constituency is the black community. His campaign resources are largely black. The frictions between black and Jewish communities in the US freed him to do what his rivals could not. And he had nothing with which to bargain except that he provided President Assad of Syria with a golden opportunity to appeal to American public opinion over Mr. Reagan's head while displaying a total lack of concern about Mr. Reagan's military posturing.
So Lieutenant Goodman was released to the black American politician who asked politely, after the airman had been held back from the President who threatened with bombs and guns.
Another fact behind all this is that a change in the balance of military power in the Middle East has occurred since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 .
Israel's military power dominated its neighborhood from its brilliant, three-part victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the 1967 war until Egypt gained modern military power and displayed it in the 1973 war. Israel made peace with Egypt after that and supposedly continued to dominate its remaining Arab neighbors.
But the invasion of Lebanon caused two changes which, when combined, made an important difference in the scales of war. One was the reaction inside Israel itself to the casualty lists in the first war not seen as essential to national survival. Israel has lost 562 lives in Lebanon. There is now a far stronger movement inside Israel for seeking peace with the Arab community. Also there is vigorous political resistance to the idea of another war.
The other factor has been Moscow's resupply of Syria with modern military weapons combined with Soviet training of the Syrian Army, and the stationing of more than 5,000 Soviet troops in Syria.
The combination of these two factors means that Israel could not invade Syria without having to expect heavy casualties. The population of Israel is not prepared for another war involving casualties which would probably run much higher against Syria than they did in Lebanon in the fighting largely against the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The weight of military power in the politics of nations depends on the ability of a given government to use that power. All Israel would, of course, support a defensive war. Syria would probably receive a quick and painful defeat if it attacked Israel. But Syria, too, now has impressive defensive power.
It used to be assumed in calculations about the Middle East that Israel could capture Damascus and dictate terms to Syria at the price of a single, quick, and decisive tank battle. That assumption no longer holds. With latest Soviet weapons, Soviet training of Syrians, and substantial Soviet forces in the lines with the Syrians, an Israeli attack on Syria would meet impressive resistance.
By releasing US Lieutenant Goodman to one of President Reagan's political rivals, Jesse Jackson, President Assad of Syria showed that he is not impressed by President Reagan's weapons off the coast of Lebanon. He knows that with the Soviets behind him he is not going to be invaded either by Israel or by the US, or even by a combination of the two.
Thus also, President Assad has underlined the fact in the Middle East equation that the road to any settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors must be cleared with him.
There was a happy assumption in Washington the other day that perhaps PLO leader Yasser Arafat would now be helpful in moving things on toward a Middle East settlement. The idea was that President Mubarak of Egypt would persuade Mr. Arafat to authorize King Hussein of Jordan to negotiate a deal with Israel over the occupied territories.
But King Hussein would be reluctant to enter into such proceedings without the approval of Mr. Assad of Syria.
If Mr. Reagan wants progress toward peace in the Middle East, he will eventually have to follow in Jesse Jackson's footsteps and try diplomacy. We may have to wait until after November.
Meanwhile, the guns of the mighty battleship New Jersey make spectacular TV film.
They do not, however, impress Mr. Assad.