Who freed the hostages?

A. M. Rosenthal

December 12, 1990|By A. M. Rosenthal

NO, IT WAS not Saddam Hussein who freed the hostages held in Iraq. It was George Bush. His instrument was not the United Nations or economic pressure. It was the threat that if they were not released, American armed power would be used to destroy their jailer.

Let's understand that now, before history is rewritten by Saddam's allies and apologists. Already stories are being broadcast about how King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat talked him into it.

Seems they looked deep into his eyes and told him that for the sake of peace he must release the hostages. Saddam clapped his forehead and said, "Boys, I never thought of that; I will do it."

The gilding of Saddam will begin any day now -- "He's not such a bad fellow, you have to understand him." It already has started with Saddam's terrorist twin, Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

We are told by liberals and conservatives that we should actually thank Assad for making Lebanon his colony. All those Lebanese he slaughtered, all those years? Well, what were they doing standing there in the way of Syrian shells, silly people.

Bush himself, while opposing Saddam, gives Assad respectability. Consistency -- who needs it? So before the process of turning Saddam into a teddy bear begins, let's learn the lesson of the hostage release.

Bush said American goals in the Persian Gulf were to reject aggression, liberate Kuwait, restore the royal family -- and free the hostages.

Somehow the objectives of stopping one more Arab-against-Arab foray or restoring the oil princelings of Kuwait to full use of their bank accounts did not fire the American imagination or psyche.

The only one of those goals that moved Americans was liberating the hostages. About that Bush neither blustered nor wimped. He assembled a powerful American force of troops, tanks, planes and ships.

He made sure publicly and through every back channel that Saddam knew he would pay if the hostages were not freed, not just with his face but his whole head.

For Saddam the hostages became a vivid danger instead of an asset. Their release would bring him two connected benefits. One was to remove the certainty of the use of American power to release them. The second was to stoke U.S. congressional and public opposition to use of force to "punish" aggression by restoring the Kuwaiti royal family.

Still -- if Bush had done what other presidents did about the hostage-taking, just wail, the hostages would still be in Iraq. So when the toasts are raised about the hostages, save one for the president.

But he made an initial mistake from which he has not recovered, and which can be Saddam's salvation. Bush did not give Americans the one overriding reason for using force, other than the hostages.

The one other goal Americans might have accepted if put to them and Congress was the destruction of the chemical power, nuclear potential and missile capability of a dictator for whom terrorism, aggression and expansionism are the very breath and bread of life.

So after kidnapping thousands of foreigners, costing the world hundreds of billions of dollars, virtually wiping out Kuwait as a national entity, Saddam will have paid no price, zero.

Eventually he will offer to retire from Kuwait, on the understanding, which probably will be accepted by Washington and the Arab world, that he then "negotiate" with his Arab brothers about getting an oil field and two gulf islands from Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other oil states will then pour billions into Iraq, just as they did before the invasion of Kuwait. Syria will allow the West to replace the bankrupt Soviet Union as its arms supplier.

The U.S will make a big noise about keeping a coalition "presence" in the area. But never again will the Arab nations muster to oppose Saddam. He will not need to send his tanks to control the oil supply of the gulf and thus the world. He can do it by telephone.

If the Bush administration is unwilling to ask the American public and Congress to act now to prevent Saddam's control of the gulf and consequent domination of the Arab Middle East, there is no point keeping American troops in the desert to watch him enjoy his cost-free triumph.

And while we give Bush deserved praise for rescuing the hostages, Saddam can put up his boots, and also raise a toast -- to himself.

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