Hostage to Hostages

October 31, 1990

Among Saddam Hussein's many miscalculations was his evident assumption that he could exploit the hostage issue to torture America much as Iran had done during its seizure of the U.S. Embassy staff a decade earlier. He was as wrong here as he was in failing to anticipate that the United Nations -- with the new American-Soviet partnership in the lead -- would mobilize world opinion against his occupation of Kuwait.

It's not hard to understand how the Iraqi dictator made his mistake. During the period when American foreign service personnel were held hostage by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Iranian mobs, the Carter administration allowed itself to be immobilized by concern for their welfare and trapped into a humiliating year-long negotiation.

Mr. Hussein also may have been led astray by President #F Reagan's highly personal involvement in the plight of a handful of American citizens held hostage by Arab extremist groups in Lebanon. But what Mr. Hussein failed to understand, in the words of foreign policy analyst John Newhouse, is that "eight hostages constitute a human tragedy, whereas a few hundred, or a few thousand, are a statistic. They add to his problem." Mr. Newhouse is not being callous; he merely is confining his judgment to the diplomatic impact and implications of what the Iraqi aggressor has done. Mr. Hussein is now hostage to his hostages.

Recall how the Iraqi leader's televised attempt to be avuncular with frightened British children caused worldwide revulsion. Note how little "credit" he has gotten for the release of women and children. Even Iraq's decision to send home all French hostages was an occasion for renewed denunciations of his policies from French newspapers. While the Soviet Union, a new target for hostage blackmail, has been trying to get its 3,000 citizens out of Iran by stressing the need for a non-military solution, Moscow has in the main been a cohesive force in holding the anti-Hussein international coalition together. Now there are hints all hostages may be released as Mr. Hussein gives up this gambit.

President Bush has been adamant that the United States will not deterred from resort to a military option by Iraq's threat to use American hostages as "human shields" at military installations. We trust he will remain firm in that resolve. If this first real crisis of the post-Cold War era is to produce positive results, one surely would be to discourage future aggressors from turning innocent human beings into hostages.

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