WHO can forget the Iranian hostage crisis? Those 444 days angered, frustrated, and humiliated Americans and their government, ruined Jimmy Carter's final year as president, helped Ronald Reagan to victory, and raised exaggerated fears of terrorism as an unstoppable danger. All this - especially after the failed rescue mission of April 1980 - added strength to the Vietnam-created image of the United States as an inept, stumbling Gulliver, tripped up by nimble Lilliputians.
As Central Intelligence Agency director, Stansfield Turner saw it all at close range, through interminable White House conferences, brainstorming sessions with CIA experts, and rare private discussions with the president. In his concise, elegantly reasoned memoir, "Terrorism and Democracy," Turner brings a perceptive, analytical mind to an issue too often defaced by political rhetoric and jingoism.
What to do and how to do it? How to find the right mix of diplomatic negotiations, nonviolent pressure, and military action? How to mobilize allied support, maintain national unity, and safeguard secrecy while not excluding well-informed officials?
Turner is, in effect, trying to distill a body of precepts and doctrine from the painful American experience with hostages, particularly in Khomeini's Iran.
Though blunt in criticizing others, Turner does not spare himself: This is not the usual Washington self-congratulatory account. He recognizes, in fact, that Carter was ill-served by advisers, including himself, who simply could not cope with what was, to be sure, an unprecedented crisis.
Anyone who lightly assumes that the CIA's dirty tricksters played a big role in the rescue mission will be surprised: It was the Army's Rangers and Delta Force, Turner contends, plus a hastily improvised, multiservice helicopter formation, on which everything depended. Carter and Turner were, after all, trying to cleanse the agency, after the firestorm of criticism that had nearly engulfed it; legality and congressional approval were the new watchwords.
Turner argues that rampaging Iranian radicalism and xenophobia made it very dangerous for Westerners in Iran: The CIA's native Iranian contacts were fleeing for their lives.
Should the CIA have built a deep-cover network before the revolution? In retrospect, of course; but, Turner asks, what American was prepared to settle and raise a family in Iran? And the classic cover for the solo agent - student, writer, journalist, anthropologist, archaeologist - might work in Paris, but not in Teheran.
Turner shows that the CIA played a minor role, gathering intelligence tidbits and providing trucks for the final assault, but little more. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, helped keep it that way - to Turner's great annoyance. He, the intelligence chief, was being kept - in the name of security - from an operation that centered on intelligence.
Brzezinski, the hawkish proponent of force, also was at odds with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who favored negotiations - which eventually succeeded.
The Brzezinski-Vance tension reflected that within Carter himself. This tug-of-war was born of the Vietnam defeat and Carter's desire for a new foreign policy, in which idealism and respect for smaller countries was - somehow - to modify the domineering style of American global imperium.
Never fully committing himself either to force or negotiation, Carter gave conflicting signals to his lieutenants, who, as Turner shows, bickered, sniped, and meandered while the months passed.
These tensions in the political chain of command extended into the military realm, where authority and responsibility were muddled and uncertain. Turner contends - as others have - that the absence of a single commander, whose determination would spur his subordinates, helps explain the rescue mission fiasco, where greater risk-taking might have brought success.
But Turner also underscores the inherent dangers of raids, which - however much they appeal to the Rambo spirit - very often fail. The moral for all of us, says Turner, is simple: Beware of glamorous, exciting solutions to intractable problems; there are no short cuts to success.