As one who spent every tormented hour of the Iranian hostage crisis as a member of President Carter's staff, I have found myself musing a good deal in the past few weeks over this question: What if Jimmy Carter had chosen to confront his crisis the same way that George Bush confronted the Iraq crisis?
I can safely say that there was no conceivable option for action that was not considered at some point while the American embassy personnel were being held in Tehran. But in the end the choices always boiled down to two: military action or diplomatic negotiation.
Mr. Carter chose the latter course, and, as a practical matter, forfeited re-election. Over the course of the 15-month period that the hostages were held, I must have heard Jimmy Carter say a hundred times, "I consider those hostages just like members of my family."
At first I thought the remark was just political language designed to show his intense concern over the issue; gradually I learned that he genuinely regarded every hostage like a brother or sister, son or daughter, and that attitude, I believe in retrospect, made it quite impossible for Mr. Carter to undertake the military option which was being pressed on him by some.
But let us suppose that President Carter had chosen to confront the Iranian hostage seizure as President Bush confronted the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait almost exactly a decade later. In its simplest terms, here's how this scenario plays out.
1. Around the first of April in 1980, President Carter deploys a massive number of troops, planes and ships to the gulf -- a daily game of nerves which would have aroused American passion at the same time it aroused Iranian anxiety. The president is deliberately vague, but the consistent message is: Iran beware.
2. At midsummer, when the American forces stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the Iranians in the Persian Gulf, the president announces that if a single hostage is harmed, the full fury of American military power would fall upon Iran "suddenly, swiftly, decisively."
3. Mr. Carter asks Congress for authority to take "whatever action is necessary, including military action," in order to bring the crisis to an end. A few "doves" warn weakly that this would be tantamount to a Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which Lyndon Johnson used as the basis for waging war in Vietnam in the previous decade. But national indignation is at a high pitch, and in the end the heavily Democratic Congress approves the
resolution Mr. Carter seeks.
4. On Sept. 15, 1980, in an address to the nation, Mr. Carter delivers an air-tight ultimatum to Iran: Release the hostages within 72 hours, or face grave consequences.
L 5. Radio Tehran responds defiantly, in blood-lust metaphors.
6. During the night of Sept. 18, sea-launched cruise missiles are fired at Tehran, waves of B-52 bombers begin bombing of more accessible cities, and the coastal ports and refineries are shelled without cease by the 16-inch guns of American warships. Among the cities heavily attacked is the small holy city of Qum, where the fanatical Ayatollah Khomeini maintained his headquarters in
tTC 7. The Iranian air force is already in disrepair for lack of parts and its most experienced pilots decimated by the purges that followed the overthrow of the shah in 1979. It offers little resistance.
8. After weeks of relentless bombing, Iran is prostrate. Further bombing only makes the rubble bounce. There is no need for a land war. That was already being conducted quite effectively, thank you, by our de facto ally Iraq, which was by then at war with Iran; the Iraqi march to Tehran should be a cakewalk. Mr. Carter demands unconditional surrender, release of whatever hostages remain, and says that until this is done, American ships will maintain a total blockade of whatever Iranian ports might be remotely operational. The war is won.
With what result?
* The 52 American hostages are dead; so are some American pilots.
* Several hundred thousand Iranians are also dead, and the country is in economic ruin, unable to sell even a rug, much less its oil.
* The bulk of American forces head for home; the first arrivals are greeted with an embrace by Jimmy Carter in the Rose Garden.
* On Nov. 4, 1980, Jimmy Carter is re-elected president by a landslide.
But as we know, Jimmy Carter chose not the military option, but rather the diplomatic -- painfully slow as it was. As a result, the 52 hostages are alive today in the United States; those several hundred thousand Iranians are also still alive; Iran became a "sideline" partner in the United Nations effort which destroyed Saddam Hussein's war-making ability; and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successors are already making tentative steps toward re-establishing Iran in the community of nations.
So you could not have a greater contrast in the way two presidents, acting just a decade apart, dealt with crises in the same part of the world. The question is, when historians compare the two approaches at some dispassionate time, say, a hundred years from now, which will they judge to have been the better?
Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.