George Bush did not have the appearance of a man in the midst of a crisis. He wandered the White House lawns, drink in hand, mingling easily with the guests assembled for the annual barbecue that United States presidents traditionally hold every summer for members of Congress. He slapped a few backs, traded a few quips and generally behaved as if there were nothing further from his mind than the murky collection of Moslem extremists in faraway Lebanon who had plunged his fledgling administration into its first real international emergency. Only once during the barbecue did he allow the mask to slip, and, even then, the reference to the tortured events in the Middle East was merely oblique. Delivering several brief words of welcome, he remarked, “Even though they are complicated times, I think an evening like this of just plain relaxation with friends is very, very significant and very important.”
There were plenty of good reasons for George Bush to attempt to portray the image of a cool leader in control last week, because he faced the recurrent nightmare of American political life: murderous threats to U.S. hostages in the Middle East. It is an issue that has dogged the American scene for a decade, serving time and time again to illustrate the helplessness of American might when confronted with a handful of Mideast fanatics. Almost as important has been the devastation it has wreaked upon successive American presidencies. It was Jimmy Carter’s handling of the embassy hostage crisis in Iran that tarnished his administration and played a pivotal role in destroying his bid for reelection in 1980. Ronald Reagan came perilously close to scuttling his administration with the arms-for-hostages Iran-contra scandal. Bush appears to have learned something from both of his predecessors. He has avoided Carter’s public agonizing and Reagan’s equally high-profile sabre-rattling, preferring instead to concentrate on defusing the atmosphere of crisis while pushing ahead with a judicious combination of behind-the-scenes diplomacy backed by a thinly veiled threat of military retaliation.
Retribution: Bush’s options, however, were limited, as both Carter and Reagan had discovered to their dismay. Carter attempted overt military action on April 24, 1980, when he sent the ill-fated Desert One rescue mission to the aid of the hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. When that mission ended in failure, with eight American servicemen killed in the vast Iranian salt desert, so, effectively, did Carter’s presidency.
Reagan took office in 1981 vowing “swift and effective retribution” whenever and wherever there were threats against American citizens. In 1983, after Shiite radicals launched a suicide bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut—killing 241 U.S. marines—he pounded the hills of Lebanon with the battleship New Jersey’s 16-inch guns. He retaliated against alleged Libyan-inspired terrorism by bombing Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. And, in the last year of his presidency, he repeatedly ordered naval strikes against Iran’s facilities in the Persian Gulf in response to attacks against U.S. ships and naval installations in the Gulf. Meanwhile, with those measures proving ineffective, he was violating the stated policy of his government by attempting to ransom U.S. hostages in Lebanon through the secret sale of arms to Iran. That ended in the Iran-contra disaster, a scandal that also tarnished the reputation of Bush—who was vice-president at the time.
There were other repercussions stemming from the Iran-contra scandal that have directly affected the United States’ ability to deal with the kind of dilemma that Bush was facing last week. Since that affair, Washington clearly felt obliged not only to restate its own policy of refusing to negotiate with kidnappers, but also to actively discourage other governments from making similar deals. This, in the opinion of many terrorism experts, has narrowed the country’s ability to manoeuvre. “We ought not to emphasize this policy too much,” said Robert Kupperman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Echoing that view, the California-based RAND Corp. two weeks ago released a timely study on terrorism that described U.S. policy as “dangerously rigid.” It pointed out that other countries have conducted secret deals to obtain the release of their own nationals held prisoner in Lebanon.
Kidnappings: The RAND report specifically mentions France and West Germany, two states that have succeeded in negotiating the release of hostages. Five French nationals were freed between November, 1987, and the following May as part of a complex deal that earned the pro-Iranian Hizbollah—a Shiite Moslem umbrella organization believed to be behind the kidnappings in Lebanon—more than $14 million in ransoms and gave a raft of concessions to Iran. As their part of the bargain, the French also freed two men implicated in a 1986 Paris bombing spree, agreed to repay $800 million plus interest on a loan made by the late Shah of Iran and expelled a number of anti-Khomeini activists from France. But the French reneged on a promise to free Anis Naccache, currently serving a life term in France for killing two French citizens during a botched 1980 attempt to assassinate exiled Iranian Premier Shahpur Bakhtiar.
Murder: The West Germans have also met with some success. In 1987 and 1988, Bonn secured the release of two West Germans in another complex arrangement. The government and two major West German companies who had employed the hostages reportedly paid as much as $25 million in ransoms. Bonn also apparently promised not to extradite Mohammed Ali Hamadi, a Lebanese in prison in Frankfurt, to the United States, where he was wanted for the 1985 murder of an American navy diver during the hijacking of a TWA airliner. Hizbollah has since kidnapped more Germans to press for the release of Hamadi, who was convicted in West Germany last May of kidnapping and murdering, and his brother Abbas, who is also in a West German prison for kidnapping and other offences.
The sole American attempt to pursue the same avenue failed miserably. In the wake of the Iran-contra scandal, it was revealed that about $3 million in profits from Iranian arms sales had been deposited into the Swiss bank account of the Global Islamic Movement, one of the principal sources of funds for Hizbollah. That money, described simply as “payments for services,” has never been recovered. Nor have any of the eight American hostages believed to be still alive in Lebanon. Even worse, the fallout from the resulting scandal has further limited American manoeuvrability. Noted U.S. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins: “After the embarrassment of the Iran-contra business, the policy of no negotiations has been restated with the zeal of reformed alcoholics.”
At week’s end, rumors abounded of international negotiations involving Iranians, Algerians and others. But with Bush’s ability to negotiate directly with the hostage-takers still severely limited, he was pursuing the twin-tracked path of diplomatic pressure and the implied threat of military force. On the diplomatic front, a White House official said that Bush had personally contacted at least 11 foreign leaders and Pope John Paul II last week. He spoke by telephone with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher twice, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Turkish Prime Minister Turgat Ozal, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan of Morocco, King Hussein of Jordan, Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Algerian President Chadli Benjedid. Moreover, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was in regular contact with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and, to a lesser extent, with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. According to White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, it was “the most defined and high-level diplomatic effort I have ever seen.”
Image: In terms of effectiveness, the Soviet role may well turn out to have been critical. Moscow reportedly pressured both Syria and Iran into exercising whatever influence each had on the hostage-holders in Lebanon. Shevardnadze was in Tehran on Tuesday, where he took up the issue with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani two days before the Iranian cleric took office as Iran’s newly elected president. In the wake of Shevardnadze’s return to Moscow last week, Rafsanjani—who is anxious to cultivate his moderate image outside Iran—apparently responded positively.
Bush’s determined show of military muscle may have also helped to concentrate both Syrian and Iranian attention. After the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth announced on July 31 that it had hanged U.S. marine Lt." Col. William Higgins, a Pentagon official told Maclean’s that the President had decided he would have no alternative but to stage a military strike if another American hostage was killed. “The whole tenor has changed now,” said the official. The following day, Washington said that 25 warships were positioned for action in the Mediterranean. An aircraft carrier battle-group had also been sent into the Indian Ocean, putting it in place for possible action against Iranian targets. The vessels included the battleship Iowa, equipped with 16-inch guns like those its sister ship New Jersey used to bombard Lebanon in 1983. “We are positioning our forces where they can best support whatever President Bush decides to do,” a Pentagon spokesman explained.
Quagmire: The joint chiefs of staff apparently presented Bush with three military options: threatening Tehran with strikes against the country’s oilfields; commando raids on the sites where the hostages may be held; and, finally, air strikes against the camps in Lebanon where Hizbollah’s forces are concentrated. But when the death sentence on Joseph Cicippio was suspended, the military options were put on hold. U.S. officials, however, took pains to stress that those options remained viable. Whether George Bush is ever called upon to exercise them will depend on what happens in the days ahead in the Middle East—an area that has been a quagmire for previous American presidents.
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