WASHINGTON -- The long hostage ordeal for Americans in Iraq and Kuwait ended finally yesterday when the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and 35 other citizens came home, and a consensus appeared to hold that President Bush had handled that part of the Persian Gulf crisis shrewdly and successfully.
When Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell, 50, stepped down from the C-5 military transport at Andrews Air Force Base, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was there at the ramp to declare: "Your ordeal is over. . . . Welcome home."
"One day soon," Mr. Baker vowed, in remarks excoriating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Kuwait would be free.
Mr. Howell, in his "it's great to be home" response, said Iraqi troops were still building bunkers on the seacoast as he left. "There is no indication that they plan to leave."
He came with the last former hostages who wanted to leave -- eight other U.S. officials, 27 U.S. citizens and 12 foreign nationals.
Despite a rather zigzag course in handling the hostage issue, President Bush had made no visible concessions to Mr. Hussein and, in the end, all who wanted to leave came home. Inevitably, there were comparisons with President Jimmy Carter's agony when U.S. Embassy personnel were held captive by Iran through the final year of his single term and released on the day Ronald Reagan succeeded him.
Mr. Bush went through contradictory phases where he first virtually ignored that there were hostages and then cited their detention as a main Iraqi crime as he sought to build American anger. Then, when Mr. Hussein began to release some of his "human shields," Mr. Bush found that this eased his problem of using force.
But, as several Mideast authorities pointed out yesterday, the president at no point let his policy become hostage to the hostages. He did not become deeply and personally involved, as Mr. Carter later acknowledged that he did.
Marvin Feuerwerger, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who served in the Carter administration, said that Mr. Carter let the Iranians know "he was willing to pay a price." Mr. Bush showed the Iraqis that, "no matter what they did,they would get nothing from him."
Similarly, Robert G. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and other Moslem countries, said the president "handled it very well; he didn't become hostage to the hostages."
In the end, the consensus seemed to hold, the hostages lost all political value to Mr. Hussein. They were a continuing reason for world animosity toward him and his use of them.
Mr. Hussein's "last use" of the captives was in letting them go, hoping to "win hearts and minds of Americans," Mr. Feuerwerger said.
The Iraqi president plainly miscalculated what Mr. Bush would do, as even critics of some of the more warlike Bush actions acknowledged yesterday.
"This is to Bush's credit," one of those critics said privately. "Saddam thought he could be squeezed the way Reagan [in the Iran-contra affair] and Carter were." Instead, he said, Mr. Bush turned the hostage-holding into a reason for American wrath.
"They had lost all value to Saddam," Mr. Neumann said. Their "inhuman treatment" helped to hold together a fragile anti-Iraq alliance, he said. He thought it would still hold.