On the night of May 18, 1904, an American citizen named Ion Perdicaris was abducted from his house in Tangiers, Morocco. His captors were followers of a colorful brigand chieftain named Raisuli, who was using the hostage to pressure the sultan by embarrasing him with the United States government.
The matter between the sultan and Raisuli was soon settled. Perdicaris, on his return, said of his captor that he was "the most interesting and king-hearted, intelligent gentleman it has been my good fortune to have known . . . it was impossible not to like the man."
But President Theodore Roosevelt seized on the incident to blow the flames of patriotism. After the matter was substantially settled, he sent a message to the Republican National Convention in Chicago telling the bored delegates, who were going through the foregone conclusion of nominating him for four more years, that their government wasn't standing for that kind of thing. In a message that has made the footnotes of many a history book, Thunderous Theodore told the world, "We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead."
Seventy-five years later the unjustifiable captivity of our diplomatic people in Tehran evokes many of the same sentiments . . . Our people alive or the ayotallah dead.
These are perfectly understandable sentiments. Anger has to have tweaked every one of us Americans while watching the chanting Iranians on TV. But if those of us parked in front of a television set react emotionally, our top officials should not. The last few days, with the attacks on the Japanese by the State Department, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and other important figures underscore an impression that the Iranian situation hasn't been handled intelligently, knowledgeably or calmly.
The available information indicates that the State Department advised the president to admit the shah on humanitarian grounds without making any effort to ascertain the medical facts. Washington Post stories have revealed that the shah was never examined by a government doctor and that the man, a cancer patient, was certified as an emergency case needing immediate admittance by a specialist in tropical medicine sent to Mexico by David Rockefeller.
If the medical emergency was specious, if the shah could have been cared for where he was, then why was he moved? The only plausible explanation is that the Mexican government had decided he was too much of a liability and wanted him out of their country.
If the Iranians knew about the Mexican decision to boot the shah, if they thought once the Mexicans kicked him out he would have no place to go but home, this would explain -- though not excuse -- their explosive anger against us.
Was Jimmy Carter manipulated and deceived? Whatever the answer to that, once the situation existed, did the president act calmly and with calculation? The answer to that is assuredly no.
On day 39 of our people's captivity, the State Department at last moved to throw nearly 183 Iranian diplomats out of the country. That should have been done the first week in a campaign of carefully escalated pressure.
Instead we threw a lot of thoughtless roundhouse punches. Punch number one was deciding not to buy Iranian oil, a decision that only makes sense if the other major international buyers also refrain. As we now know, the Japanese didn't refrain, but evidently they were never asked to; they were told to. It is only in the last few days that Secretary Vance has set out to solicit cooperation from our allies.
Even less comprehensible was the decision to freeze Iranian assets. It has shaken the confidence of all foreign depositors in American banks.
This is not 1904, but even then, bravery was no substitute for brains.