PRESIDENT BUSH is generally getting good marks for the way he handled his first major foreign policy crisis, and specifically his first confrontation with Iran as President. The crisis began with the apparent execution of Lt. Col. William R. Higgins - an action that may have been stimulated by the Israeli kidnapping of a fundamentalist Muslim cleric, Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid.
Mr. Bush, mounting a major diplomatic campaign in tandem with discreet plans to use force, successfully thwarted a threat to kill a second American hostage, Joseph James Cicippio.
President Bush had a number of factors working to his advantage.
He has had a lot of experience watching others deal with Iran. He was able to draw on that expertise, pushing the diplomatic buttons that might work with Iran, yet always maintaining a healthy skepticism about Iranian intentions. Thus he was able to avoid, on the one hand, the naivety of the Carter administration and, on the other hand, the stupidity of the Reagan administration in dealing with Iran.
As a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he quickly accepted that the CIA could not pinpoint the whereabouts of the hostages for any United States rescue mission. The Iranians may know where the hostages are being held; the Syrians may know; the CIA does not. This is a problem of US intelligence that Bush may want to take up. The intelligence community runs a great spy satellite system; what it is lacking is good ``human intelligence'' - the on-the-ground, James Bond types who can penetrate such fanatical organizations as the Party of God.
Bush was able to exploit some fluidity in Iran occasioned by the installation of a new president, Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Although there have been confusing signals since, Mr. Rafsanjani last week offered to help resolve the hostage crisis.
But a significant factor working to Bush's advantage was the new willingness of the Pentagon to use military power in reinforcement of diplomacy. This is a change from when Caspar Weinberger was secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. Mr. Weinberger was extremely cautious in supporting or authorizing the use of US military forces in hazardous foreign operations. He was uncomfortable about the commitment of troops, and the launching of strikes in Lebanon and Libya, and for the interdiction of known terrorists aboard a plane leaving Egypt. He often seemed to argue for risk-free conditions before casting an assenting vote to ground operations. This on a number of occasions seemed to hobble the Reagan administration.
One of the anachronisms in the Reagan administration was the philosophical differences between George Shultz, the secretary of state, and Weinberger at the Pentagon. Ironically, as a longtime mediator Mr. Shultz was a man of pragmatism, an instinctive negotiator. Weinberger was much more of a hard-line non-negotiator with such adversaries as the Soviets and the Nicaraguans. Yet it was usually Shultz who wanted diplomacy backed by the readiness to use force, and Weinberger who seemed generally reluctant to commit US military forces.
This contradiction no longer seems evident in the Bush administration. Bush, in the latest hostage crisis, gave diplomacy the lead. While he conceded that the US military was getting prudently prepared for action, there were no theatrics. Perhaps that made the ultimate threat of military force more credible and effective. But the military was poised to strike in the event Mr. Cicippio was executed. Planes from the Sixth Fleet would have attacked terrorist targets in Lebanon. There would have been civilian casualties. Very probably there would have been losses among the US attacking forces.
One thesis is that the Pentagon was readier to act and accept casualties in this instance because one of their own, a Marine Corps officer, had been executed. That may have something to do with it, but it seems too simplistic a reason for what looks like a major change of will.
It is a change for the good. Nobody should be eager to pull a trigger, or drop a bomb, for foolhardy or ill-thought-out objectives. Bush was right to try every diplomatic initiative he could think of first. But diplomacy is more effective when an adversary understands that there is the will to use military power as an ultimate reinforcement.