Glad, not grateful

A.M. Rosenthal

August 19, 1991|By A.M. Rosenthal

THE DIPLOMATS from the West, Israel and the United Nations who are trying to get the hostages freed are keeping their mouths zipped about some of the basic realities underlying the negotiations process.

That is fair enough. It is not the job of those diplomats to serve as educators of the public about the whole vicious story of hostage-taking, how it works, or the dangers of it happening again. Their job is to get the hostages out as soon as possible.

But it is important for the rest of us to understand what is going on -- mostly for the sake of the hostages. In case not all of them are freed, it will help to get them out eventually if the world knows who is keeping them chained.

And if all are freed soon the speaking of the truth might just conceivably dissuade decent nations of the world from following policies that encourage kidnappers to take more hostages, for leverage and reward.

The first reality is that if a deal is worked out and all hostages are freed it will not be because of the negotiations themselves. It will be because the sponsors and masters of the kidnappers, Iran and Syria, have in their own sweet time decided that it is in their best economic, military and political interests to free their victims, at least some.

Iran desperately wants help from the West to patch up an economy shattered by years of fear and fanaticism. So it is calling in the investment it has made in the kidnap gangs, the years of investment of financial and political capital.

These gangs, which use the name of God to carry out the work of the devil, were organized and sent into Lebanon by Tehran and have paid off by giving Iran years of political leverage.

With fine candor, Professor R.K. Ramazani of the University of Virginia summed it all up in a New York Times Op-Ed article urging the United States now to fulfill Iran's desire for a major role in the Persian Gulf.

"The prospect of the October peace talks reduces the usefulness of Western hostages as a lever to pressure the U.S. and Israel on issues important to Iran," he explains.

Plain enough?

Iran could not have protected the gangs without Syria. The gangs seized their victims in Syrian-dominated Lebanon and kept them mostly in the Bekaa Valley. That bears about the same relationship to Syria as Parris Island does to the United States Marine Corps.

Now Syria finds itself without Soviet aid, and eager to be removed from Washington's short, select pariah list of terrorist nations.

Could Iran and Syria have freed the hostages years ago? Of course. The Syrians say they did not want to risk the lives of the hostages. But Syria never used the obvious weapon: a threat to execute all kidnappers if one hostage was injured.

The Iranians don't say anything very much; at least they have that much respect for our intelligence.

So this is the end game -- Syria and Iran trying to make a profitable exit from an enterprise no longer paying off. But even now the diplomats do not know whether all the hostages will be released or some kept for future body-bargaining.

Another reality: The terrorists and their sponsors have carried off a fine piece of moral and political fakery. They have linked and equated the prisoners taken by Israel with the hostages. A hostage is a person who has no relationship to a fight between two parties but is kidnapped by one to exert pressure on the other, or on a third party, like the always-available U.S.

That definition precisely fits the Western victims taken in Lebanon but not most of the prisoners of war, terrorists or gang leaders captured by the Israelis.

Maybe that fraud will help free the hostages; let's pray. But if we fail to see and state the difference we will be setting ourselves up for another round of hostage-taking -- a point that I have heard only Henry Kissinger make clearly and bravely, on ABC's "Nightline."

Hostages have been released because after years of hideous captivity the value has been sucked out of them. Soviet political prisoners gave exactly the right reaction when they were released from their own long captivity: glad, not grateful.

If the kidnappers and their masters are rewarded with trade, arms and absolution, hostages will be taken again. Why not -- low risk, good payoff. Then the West can find at least one responsible party, by looking in its own mirror.

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