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Picking Up the Pieces

November 11, 1986

The foreign-relations amateurs at the White House are learning what the foreign-relations professionals at the State Department could have told them from the beginning: The price of ransoming three American hostages out of Lebanon has involved a lot more than just shipping some arms to Iran. The greater cost has come in a loss of U.S. credibility. Hostile nations and factions now see that, regardless of what it says, the United States will indeed treat with terrorists, and so further hostage-grabbing has been made more likely. And friendly countries now have learned that what the United States urges in public may not at all reflect what it does in secret. That won't encourage future trust.

It's now up to the professionals to try to clean up the mess made by the amateurs. The most immediate problem area is the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and the smaller states stand in fear and trembling before the prospect of Iran exporting its Islamic revolution. The U.S. spare parts and weapons that have been delivered to Iran will hardly assure it a victory over Iraq so that it can next turn its attention to making life miserable for other gulf countries. At best, the equipment only gives Iran the chance to further prolong a war that has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But even that isn't the point.

The point is that the Saudis and others in the gulf area, who have sent Iraq tens of billions of dollars to try to forestall an Iranian victory, now have reason to question whether U.S. policy has any coherence and to wonder whether U.S. assurances can be believed. The same questions can be asked by Jordan and Egypt, both of which have contributed to the Iraqi war effort. These actions were taken not simply out of a sense of Arab solidarity but because all of the states involved are terrified at what they could face if Iran triumphs on the battlefield and its prestige and appetite grow.

U.S. policy, officially neutral in the gulf war, has tried to discourage all arms shipments to Iran while making no real effort to curb the arms flow to Iraq. This policy is not only what friendly Arab regimes want but also what Western interests generally require, since no one wants to see the Arabian peninsula's oil fields pass under Iran's control. But now this policy stands exposed as being dishonestly applied, while the policy of refusing to pay ransom for hostages is revealed as being expediently porous. In violating the first of these policies the Reagan Administration ignored the interests and sensitivities of U.S. friends. In violating the second it broke faith with its own principles.

Actions of such ineptitude aren't easily explained. One story has it that President Reagan, his heart touched by the plight of the hostages and the pleas of their families, gambled that their freedom could be won even as the United States regained some influence in Iran. But the implication of selfless political detachment in this explanation is hard to credit. Reagan once made much of President Jimmy Carter's inability to win honorable release for Americans held captive in Iran for 444 days. He faced--and still faces--the embarrassing prospect of leaving office with Americans held captive in Lebanon for far longer. While the White House calculated domestic political gain by trying to buy freedom for the hostages, it failed to calculate the international political costs of its ill-conceived plan. Least excusable, it coldly froze out of its deliberations those in the State Department and in Congress who would have had sense enough to say stop.

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