The arms-for-hostages exchange. Mismatch between words and deeds

LIKE it or not, we do make concessions to terrorism. President Reagan's address in defense of his new Iranian initiative last week provided no convincing case to the contrary. There may be good strategic reasons to normalize relations with a more moderate Iran. But the bribe of United States armaments and third-party spare parts in return for Iran's ``generosity'' in securing the release of American hostages - hostages held by their proxies - has bankrupted Reagan's no-concession policy. At best this kind of hip-pocket operation by the National Security Council demonstrates a lack of coordination within the government and with the Congress. At worst, many critics observe that we are becoming hostage to the plight of the hostages. Our allies, many of whom are prepared to deal with Syria and Iran, now have an excuse to do so.

Public pressure and humanitarian questions aside, what the government has been accused of is losing credibility for a relatively small gain. Certainly the lives of five hostages count for a great deal. But the prospect of major foreign policy concessions and the potential for terrorism on a far grander scale also count dearly.

There comes a point at which the US government is going to have to level with the American public. If an American citizen chooses to travel to Lebanon or to live there, the government will not be able to protect him, much less extricate him from life-threatening situations.

We must be able to hold to non-concessions for this level of terrorism. For if we capitulate at fairly low levels of threat, what are our options if that level begins to escalate?

There is reason to believe that terrorist attacks will escalate, both numerically and qualitatively. Terrorists are becoming more technologically adept, not only in the choice of weapons and tactics, but also in their ability to analyze and assess more sophisticated targets.

What will be done in the face of threatened attacks against our technological infrastructure - water and food supply chains, computer and telecommunications networks, energy and transportation systems - or conceivable chemical, biological, or nuclear threats? Clearly, US counterterrorism policy must be rooted in pragmatism - an ability to distinguish between minor tactical concessions and major strategic ones. A major strategic concession at a low level of threat may well be a minor tactical consideration at a much greater threshold of threat.

More important, we must begin to look at the underlying question: Is a rigidly enforced no-concessions policy viable? Ironically, while the rhetoric of this policy was shouted around the globe after the Achille Lauro and Libyan actions, the administration begs for silence when the policy has fallen flat on its face.

Indeed, the notion that a no-concessions policy will usually work is naive. No policy works across the board. All will be bound to fail at one juncture or another. The problem with the macho approach is that it never fails gracefully; US credibility simply drops off the edge of a cliff.

The bottom line is that there is no overarching strategy against terrorism. No matter what policy we select, it is unlikely that our allies will inevitably go along with us. The threat of force is simply not applicable in every terrorist incident, and the threat of retaliation looks empty when we do not go beyond rhetoric. And, in the end, the US loses credibility when it fails to apply its own well-publicized guidelines.

No single approach to terrorism is inherently wrong, just inherently inadequate to deal with every possible incident and every foe. A counterterrorism policy built with greater flexibility, greater ambiguity, and toughness only when feasible may ultimately prove far more credible than one built on rhetoric followed by humiliating concession.

We will have to begin to think in terms of a much less stable future in which unconventional forms of warfare, including terrorism, dominate global security concerns. We will have to begin to meet sophisticated technological and political threats with a great deal more sophistication.

Above all, we cannot afford counterterrorism policies that we will almost automatically violate.

Robert H. Kupperman is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International studies, Georgetown University.

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