Bush's Response To Kidnappers Gets High Marks

Diplomacy and lessons from past presidents are helping him handle tensions, analysts say. HOSTAGE SITUATION

THE Bush style of governing withstood its first encounter last week with the intense pressure of an international hostage drama. By the weekend the reviews among political analysts were forming a pattern: President Bush had managed an adroit mixture of action and restraint that minimized the media-fed power of the kidnappers.

The frustration has now evolved into the glimmer of an opportunity for defusing tensions between the United States and Iran after a decade of hostility, with the prospect that Iran could become a force for the release of American hostages.

The greatest frustrations of Presidents Carter and Reagan centered on American hostages in the Middle East.

Mr. Bush seemed to incorporate lessons from both past presidents in his handling of last week's events, according to former officials in both administrations and other national-security specialists.

The power of hostage-takers works in a roundabout way. Largely through television news coverage, they concentrate public attention on their victims, building pressure on governments to act or to stew in their frustration and helplessness.

The challenge for the President is to exert what diplomatic and military pressure he can, and show the public that he is acting forcefully, yet not strengthen the hand of the kidnappers by feeding them attention and importance.

``The most dangerous thing that can happen is that the message goes out that the hostage situation has brought the American government to a standstill,'' says Thomas Griscom, communications director in the Reagan White House.

The first clear signal that Bush would avoid this pitfall came on Tuesday night, the day after kidnappers released a videotape showing the purported hanging of US Marine Col. William Higgins.

Bush held to his previous schedule and attended a shirtsleeves congressional barbecue on the White House lawn.

His remarks respected the gravity of Colonel Higgins's apparent murder and the deadline on another American hostage's life. But the occasion by nature was not solemn.

The signal was that the hostages were not going to dominate the agenda of the presidency - at least not publicly.

Bush's first response had set off some alarms. He was in Chicago Monday when the videotape of Higgins surfaced, purporting to show his hanging in response to the Israeli kidnapping of a Shiite Muslim leader.

Bush canceled the rest of his trip and returned immediately to Washington.

This was a gamble, notes Donald Hafner, a Boston College foreign affairs expert and former National Security Council member under Carter.

The move heightened the crisis atmosphere and raised expectations that Bush would take action.

The President may have had no choice, however, because the vivid and gruesome videotape was airing on the television networks. To treat it any less seriously risked leaving a leadership void that would draw stronger criticism from Congress and others.

``I think the media would have made mincemeat of him if he hadn't come back to Washington, because of the videotape,'' says Robert Hunter, director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former member of Mr. Carter's National Security Council staff.

Soon, United States naval ships were steaming toward Lebanon, where the kidnappers operate.

Then, analysts say, Bush began doing what he does best: enlisting outside support through personal diplomacy.

He briefed congressional leaders in Washington and directly or indirectly placed calls to leaders in Iran, Syria, the Soviet Union, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, the United Nations, and probably more. He personally recruited Pope John Paul II to help bring back Colonel Higgins's body.

In his own conversations with these leaders, his knowledge of the issues and people was ``impressive,'' an administration official says.

In private, the White House pulled out a 1985 contingency plan for bombing camps of militant Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militants in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Late Thursday, once the death threat against the second hostage had been frozen indefinitely, the administration leaked to the press that it was prepared to undertake the bombing in Lebanon if the hostage had been killed.

The leak served the same purpose as the raid itself would, to put pressure on Iran and on Syrian, whose troops control the Bekaa Valley.

Syria could press the hostage-takers, given the location of their troops; and Iran may directly control some of the hostages, according to an administration official.

The leak also played well to a sizeable portion of the American public, frustrated with the elusiveness of taunting terrorists. The discolsure represented forceful action by the President, so that he can play down the hostage situation and turn to other business of government without appearing weak and helpless.

An ABC News/Wasington Post survey taken Wednesday and Thursday of last week, 47 percent of the survey's 711 respondents approved of Bush's handling of the crisis; 35 percent disapproved. But when asked specifically if Bush had been tough enough, 51 percent said he had not been; 35 percent said his reaction had been ``just about right''; and 1 percent said he had been too tough.

From Tuesday night onward, the White House was seeking to turn down the crisis level. Public statements became repetitive: The US is opposed to any hostage-taking anywhere.

After Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters the President would no longer have scheduled briefings on the hostage situation from his staff. By Friday, the day the threat of a bombing strike appeared in newspapers, the daily White House press briefing ran for nearly half an hour on other business before the hostages even arose in a question.

Says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution: ``His instinct to keep it in perspective is the right one.''

The consensus view now is that both Carter and Reagan, in different ways, failed to hold the human drama of terrorist acts in perspective.

Carter canceled campaign appearances and centered his public efforts on freeing hostages held in the US Embassy in Iran until he became a virtually hostage himself, Mr. Griscom says.

Reagan talked tough about retaliation, then found no targets to retaliate against when 241 sleeping US Marines were killed by a car bomb.

He also talked tough about not negotiating with terrorists, then found his personal frustration and sympathy leading him into an ill-fated arms deal with Iran intended to free American hostages.

``Part of the problem of the 1980s is that Ronald Reagan acted like he could do things he couldn't do,'' Dr. Hunter says.

The pressure to respond to terrorism bears down so hard on the White House, noted former Reagan National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane on Friday, that he offered a ``50-50 chance that [the administration] will take violent action against something.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bush's Response To Kidnappers Gets High Marks
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today