Weighing the risks of reprisal

Ross Laver July 1 1985

Weighing the risks of reprisal

Ross Laver July 1 1985

Weighing the risks of reprisal


Ross Laver

Five years ago, in a desperate bid to free 53 Americans held hostage by Iranian militants in Tehran, then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter dispatched a crack team of military commandos to stage a lightning predawn rescue. But the mission ended in catastrophe when three of the eight helicopters assigned to the raid malfunctioned and a fourth crashed into a C-130 transport plane some 400 km short of its target, killing eight servicemen. For Carter, the debacle was a military and political disaster. During the 1980 presidential race Republican candidate Ronald Reagan accused Carter of “vacillation and weakness.” Faced with a similar situation, the future President vowed, “I wouldn’t stand there and do nothing.” But last week Reagan experienced the agonizing frustrations of facing a hostage crisis of his own.

With the lives of 40 American hostages hanging in the balance in Beirut

—and another seven Americans kidnapped in Lebanon during the past 16 months—the President found himself as impotent as he had accused Carter of being during the 444-day Iranian ordeal —and public demands for action mounted. Reagan discouraged speculation about a possible commando raid to liberate the hostages or—while they were being held—military reprisals against the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorists responsible for the June 14 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. He told reporters at a White House press conference that either course of action would be tantamount to sentencing innocent Americans to death. Declared Reagan: “I’m as frustrated as anyone. I’ve pounded a few walls myself when I’m alone about this.” Stalemate: As the stalemate entered its second week, administration officials also found themselves enmeshed in a debate about the ethics of negotiating with terrorists. Reagan himself vowed to make no concessions to the hostage takers. “To do so would only invite more

terrorism,” the President said. “Once we head down that path, there’ll be no end to it.” Reagan also said that he would not ask any other country to capitulate to the terrorists. That was an obvious allusion to Israel, which detained 766 Lebanese, mostly Shi’ites, captured during its occupation of South Lebanon, whose release the TWA hijackers had demanded in exchange for releasing the hostages.

Despite the President’s vow, most observers said that Reagan would find it difficult to resist being drawn into discussions that were, in effect, negotiations. Even Israel, long renowned for its standing policy against negotiating with terrorists under pressure, has occasionally struck deals—however controversial—with terrorist groups in order to secure the safe release of its nationals. Only six weeks ago Jerusalem released 1,150 Palestinians in a lopsided trade for three Israeli prisoners of war. A similar exchange of 4,500 Palestinians for six Israelis occurred in November, 1983. As The Washington Post said in an editorial last week: “Equating negotiating with ‘caving’ is no help: it depends on the circumstances and terms.”

The question of retaliation was even more hotly debated. Already there is a widespread perception that although the Reagan administration has talked a tough line on terrorism, it has failed to translate the rhetoric into action. Even after the October, 1983, suicide truck bomb at the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans, Washington did not respond militarily. Yet last October, Secretary of State George Shultz warned that the United States must not become “the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond to terrorists.” A swift military response to terrorist attacks,

Shultz said, was appropriate even if “there is potential for loss of life of some of our fighting men and the loss of life of some innocent people.”

Pressure: Certainly there was no shortage of voices last week urging the President to retaliate. Representative Tommy Robinson (D-Ark.), for one, called on Reagan to strike back at the Shi’ites by bombing Beirut airport. Said Robinson: “How often have you seen a Soviet or Israeli airliner hijacked? The reason you don’t is that terrorists around the world know that, generally speaking, those two countries will retaliate. The United States has been, and is today, perceived as being a very weak country.” Meanwhile, there were signs that public pressure for retribution was building. During a midweek visit to Indianapolis, Reagan’s motorcade was greeted by placards urging the President not to let the United States be pushed around. Read one sign:

“Nuke Beirut.”

Some hard-liners suggested that Washington had simply encouraged terrorism by failing to respond to previous attacks. Said Michael Ledeen, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies: “I love high moral positions but I’d rather

be alive. We’ve got to respond to terrorism. We’ve got to attack them.” Added former secretary of state Henry Kissinger: “I wonder what the impact of this is on moderate Arabs, who live in fear of Shi’ite radicalism and see the United States as again not capable of dealing with this problem. There must be a penalty for hijacking. In the long run, it will save lives.”

Chance: Still, administration officials were quick to point out the practical difficulties of pinpointing those re-

sponsible for the hostage-taking. So long as the Americans remained aboard the TWA airliner on the tarmac at Beirut airport, there was at least a slim chance that a successful rescue raid might be mounted. But that hope faded when the remaining 37 passengers were removed from the plane on orders from Shi’ite

_ Amal militia leader Na-

bih Berri and taken to undisclosed locations in the battle-scarred neighborhoods of West Beirut. Said one state department official: “Whom do you take the reprisals against? A neighborhood? You don’t want to just go out and clobber somebody because it makes you feel good.” Added Reagan at his press conference: “You can’t just start shooting without having someone in your gunsights.”

At the same time,

some authorities feared that any move by Washington to respond with force would only spark an endless cycle of retaliation and counterretaliation. The Shi’ite terrorists were unlikely to be deterred by the threat of being killed themselves. Moreover, if Iran were proven to have sponsored the hijacking and if Reagan ordered a military strike at Iranian targets, the action could backfire. Thousands of pro-Khomeini Iranians reside in the United States and, at Khomeini’s behest, they could launch a wave of domestic terror.

Apart from those concerns, the administration’s attempts to come to grips with terrorism were hampered by internal quarrels. Led by Shultz, the state department has promoted the idea that reprisals should be launched even if Washington does not precisely know who was behind the incident in question. But Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has counselled a more cautious approach. In part, the debate is a byproduct of diminishing American intelligence capability in Lebanon, Iran and other hard-line Moslem states. Experts within and outside the Central Intelligence Agency concede that efforts to forestall terrorist attacks have been frustrated by the virtually impenetrable radical Shi’ite groups.

Woodwork: Reagan seemed to be left with no other option but to wait and hope. Dr. Kenneth Stein, associate professor of Near Eastern history and political science at Emory University in Atlanta, said a staged release or tradeoff could be worked out. Said Stein: “You have to find a solution where both sides compromise but neither side gives up its ultimate position.” Another possible outcome, noted Washington terrorism expert Robert Kupperman, was that the terrorists would eventually realize that having attained publicity, they were unlikely to win further concessions. “When that happens,” he added, “I think they’re going to disappear into the woodwork.”

Inevitably, observers drew parallels between Reagan’s handling of the hostage taking and the policy of restraint adopted by Carter during the Iranian crisis. But even longtime aides of the former president resisted the urge to exploit Reagan’s vulnerability. Among them: Hamilton Jordan, the former Carter White House chief of staff who helped negotiate the agreement that ultimately freed the Americans in Iran. Jordan, now an Atlanta-based political consultant, declined to criticize the President. “Things look a lot different from the Oval Office than they do from the campaign trail,” Jordan said. “All presidents find that out.”

With Ian Austen in Washington and Bob Levin in Atlanta.

Ian Austen

Bob Levin