This has been a painful week for President Reagan. He had to admit publicly that he was ``as frustrated as anyone'' over what to do about the Americans being held as hostages somewhere in Lebanon.
He had to admit that the ``swift and effective retribution'' he promised in 1980 cannot be provided in 1985. He had to recognize, as Jimmy Carter did during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, that ``the first priority is the safety of those victims.''
In other words, this has been another chapter in the education of Ronald Reagan in world affairs. He has been learning the hard way that foreign policy is a complicated, difficult, and dangerous business in which there are few easy solutions and that what is done today can have consequences later.
Mr. Reagan could give expression to the urge for retribution by sending ships toward the scene. But he also had to recognize that, as with the 1983 car-bombing of the United States Marines barracks, ``You can't just start shooting without having someone in your sights.'' Once the hostages had been scattered around the Beirut area, there was no one place where a sudden raid might hope to free them, and no one target to hit with retaliatory bombs or shells.
He did do the only possible thing he could do under the circumstances. He encouraged the Red Cross to move in as a mediator and try to negotiate a prisoner exchange which would avoid the direct appearance of being a prisoner exchange. ``You can't give in to terrorism,'' he said. But any deal which involves both release of the US hostages and release by Israel of captured Lebanese Shiites would be a success for the hijackers who took the hostages for precisely that purpose.
The US President recognized publicly that ``we seem to be a target also, I'm quite sure, because of our friendship and support of Israel.'' There is, however, much more behind this past week's taking and holding of hostages, and the brutal and deliberate murder of one of them, than just long-term US support of Israel.
The US entered the Middle East as an active power with WW II. It has made many enemies there since.
The Shiite Muslims who hijacked the TWA jet have several grievances against the US. Their first derives from US support for the former Shah of Iran. US agents managed a revolution in Iran in 1953 which overthrew a nationalistic prime minister, Muhammad Mossadeq, and restored the Shah in his place. The US backed the Shah to the day he was overthrown by a Shiite fundamentalist, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in January 1979.
Iran is the only country where Shiites are the overwhelmingly dominant political element. The Shiites are 95 percent of the population. Shiites in other countries look to Iran for support and guidance. The Iranian clerics see the US as ``the great Satan.''
In 1983, Lebanon's Shiites acquired another grievance against Americans. US military forces supported the interim regime set up under the Gemayel family. The dominant element was made up of Maronite Christians, mostly sympathetic to Israel. The Shiites had by then developed a large, effective militia. Israel sought control of most of southern Lebanon against the Maronites.
In that fighting US forces intervened to prevent the Shiite militia from advancing toward Beirut and the Beirut-Damascus highway. Shiite militiamen were killed by US bombs and by shells from the USS New Jersey. During this past week's hostage episode, the Shiite kidnappers referred to the shelling from the USS New Jersey. To them, Americans are enemies.
The Israeli factor came into the equation with their invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. In Arab eyes, the US both could and should have prevented that invasion.
At first many Shiites welcomed the Israelis as a co-enemy of the Palestinians, but later came to fight against them. US support for Israel thus became a third reason for a sense of hostility between the Shiites and the US.
There are other undertones in this story. It happened on a flight from Athens. The present prime minister of Greece is Andreas Papandreou. His father, George Papandreou, prime minister in 1965, was forced out of office by King Constantine. Right-wing colonels later took over, ruling from 1967 to 1974. The US worked along with them within NATO.
The antidictatorship forces received aid from Palestinians and Libyans, who today, are regarded in Prime Minister Papandreou's camp as friends. The US has been feuding with Libya since the mid-70s. It also supports Israel against the Palestinians. Washington has not found Andreas Papandreou a very helpful NATO member.
This week Reagan learned that his hostage crisis was in part a result of US support for Israel. He may or may not yet realize that its origins can be traced back to 1953 when the Central Intelligence Agency sent an agent into Tehran with a suitcase of money, hired a street mob, overthrew a prime minister, and restored the Shah.
The seizing of TWA Flight 847 is part of the price the US pays for playing an active role in the affairs of a turbulent part of the world. Those whose interests are disserved always have this kind of violent means of striking back. They used it this past week, and may well try to use it again.