The Carter administration has put about the notion that there were only two possible ways of dealing with the seizure of the embassy in Tehran.
One was calm, patient, restrained, wise, mature and well-calculated to secure the release of the hostages. That, supposedly, was the way chosen by the president. The other was reckless, militaristic, macho, self-indulgent and sure to provoke a wipeout of the hostages. That was the way supposedly favored by those who have been critical of the administration.
But choices in real life never present themselves that starkly -- certainly not in the case of the Tehran embassy. On the contrary, the normal response to the seizure of the embassy was a position, both non-provocative and free of the risk of humiliation, which the Carter administration did not take.
The norm in international relations is that an embassy is sovereign territory. The United States and Russia have observed that norm through the blackest days of the Cold War. Hitler did not violate it nor, some historians say, did Atila the Hun.
But the Iranian students who seized the embassy did, and Ayatollah Khomeini backed them up. So the obvious response for the United States would have been to invoke the fundamental principle. The president would simply have announced that while country was genuinely prepared to negotiate on all legitimate grievances, it was not going to do so under duress. The United States, in other words, would not talk to anybody about anything until siege of the embassy had been ended and the hostages returned safely.
No one can guarantee that such a position would have kept the hostages alive. But the odds favor it strongly. For everything about the initial deportment of the Iranians suggests that they seized the embassy not to kill the hostages, but to extract concession from Washington.
Insisting on release of the hostages before talking, moreover, would not have militated against other diplomatic actions. This country's allies could have raised the issue at the United Nations. The pope could have done his bit, and the Saudis, the Turks, the Pakistanis could have, too. So could the Palestine Liberation Organization. As to Americans, like Ramsey Clark, who are friendly to the aytollah, they could have done theirs on their own.
But the presitge of the U.S. government would not have been engaged. There would have been no official Ramsey Clark mission and no official rejection of that mission . The United States would not have been obliged to bend its knee to the PLO or to go into the penalty box for the supposed sin of affording medical care to the shah.
The administration would have scotched as irrelevant arguments that the Iranians hate the shah as much as Jews hated Adolf Eichmann. It would not have been forced to stigmatize Americans expressing justifiable anger. Finally, there would not have had to be, as there probably now will have to be some spasmodic American move designed to recoup lost prestige.
Indeed, the insistence that the hostages be released first is a position so attractive, so obvious, so normal that the first question that has to be put in judgement the administration is why this position was not taken. My own guess is that image played a part. Carter and his political advisers wanted to be seen doing things -- sending emisaries, convoking the United Nations, holding meetings -- on behalf of the hostages. They did not want to be seen sitting, arms folded, however strong the position.
But image is only part of the answer. The heart of the matter is that this president, like most presidents, believes his own propaganda. Carter really thinks the choice was between being reckless and keeping calm. He does not see that the wisest course can often be a firm stance.
He does not see that because he is a genuine outsider, insensitive to the meaning of past American commitments and blind to the significance of departure from those commitments. That is why he came to office blithely promising to cut defense expenditures and pull troops out of Korea. That is why he let the shah go down without even acknowledging that something important had happened. That is why he allowed himself to march up the hill on the Russian brigade in Cuba and then down. And that is why, in present circumstances, when the United States is clearly the injured party, his administration goes out of its way to take a position that puts this country on the defensive.