WASHINGTON — Last Sunday 15 U.S. officials involved in "the hostage watch" waited anxiously in the seventh-floor suite reserved for State Department crises. Assembled around a long oak table cluttered with phones, clipboards and coffee cups, most were convinced a break was imminent, despite qualms at the White House. But by midday, several began to wonder. An early morning UPI bulletin of a hostage release proved false. And the seven-hour time difference with Syria, where night had set in, made a release seem increasingly unlikely.
Then, shortly after 1 p.m., the Ops Center next door relayed a flash from Damascus. A deputy assistant secretary of state read it and said, "This is it."
The Bush Administration should have had no doubts.
For almost a year, the Middle East has been going through a quiet upheaval. With Soviet foreign-aid cutbacks, the Middle East is increasingly looking to the United States and Europe for economic and political support. Shifting political agendas are now bringing old rivals into new alliances. Financial hardships are forcing hard-line states into unprecedented compromise. And all but one ongoing war has or is being settled.
Tactics are also changing--as shown by the emergence of gaunt Robert Polhill from 1,183 days in captivity. The confluence of changes is such that even the most cost-efficient terrorist tactic is growing too expensive for governments long involved with hostage abductions.
The dimensions of the shift were evident in the Syrians' meticulous attention to detail in staging Polhill's release.
As State Department officials waited for Polhill to be driven from Beirut to Damascus, they were astonished to see him being interviewed on CNN. The Syrian government had dispatched a TV crew to talk to Polhill en route. Tapes were given to U.S. networks even before he arrived at the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Since 1982, Syrian troops have ferried dozens of other hostages to freedom. None held live press conferences broadcast via Syrian TV. This time, however, the government of President Hafez Assad wanted the world, particularly Americans, to see how cooperative--and instrumental--it had been.
Freedom for the last of the remaining 17 foreign hostages in Lebanon is probably still far off. But, with Polhill's release, two of the Mideast's three pariah states--Syria and Iran--made concrete gestures of reconciliation toward the West. The third, Libya, is also making noises. Following the release of three European hostages by a pro-Libyan group, Moammar Kadafi called last Monday for freedom for all captives.
The release of the first U.S. hostage in more than three years seems to indicate that Western ideas and influence--the real target of the hostage phenomenon--are no longer anathema. A new interest in pluralism, free-market economies and peace is evident throughout the region.
Five months ago Jordan held its first national elections in 22 years. Algeria, after lifting a ban on several opposition parties, is scheduled in June to hold the most democratic local election since independence in 1962. Last month Syria announced the number of parliamentary seats open to independent parties in May's national election will more than double, from 18% to 40%.
Economically the emphasis is increasingly on free trade and decreasingly on state control. Morocco is just one of several countries now restructuring its economy to allow greater Western investment. In February, Iran received the first World Bank mission since its 1979 revolution to probe the possibility of Western credit.
And militarily, the world's most consistently fractious region is sorting out its differences; conflicts that played off the superpower rivalry are disappearing.
After a 12-year break, Syria and Egypt, long-standing rivals for leadership of the 22-nation Arab bloc, restored relations in December. Last August, Libya and Chad signed a nonaggression pact to end their long-simmering border dispute. And in October, Libya restored diplomatic relations with Egypt for the first time since 1977.
The one glaring exception to this regional conciliation is Israel. Ironically, the region's most democratic state has been paralyzed by ruptures over basic issues of identity and survival. Jerusalem is still ahead of the curve, but the pace of change in the neighboring Arab and Muslim worlds is accelerating more rapidly than at any time since most of the region gained independence after World War II.
And this does not appear to be a temporary phenomenon. Many governments have little choice.