Just six months ago the hostages were taken in Tehran. In its formal statement on the news then, the White House said the seizure "had provoked strong feelings here at home. There is outrage. There is frustration. And there is deep anger."
Today, of course, those emotions, still exist but with a notable difference.
The passion has gone out of the issue. It's as if last month's explosion in the desert and the American wreckage and dead left behind vented some of the nation's pent-up feelings; the rescue mission, however doomed, was a form of catharsis. At least we did something. Now, it appears, the country seems as anxious as the president to put the whole unhappy episode behind us.
Jimmy Carter hasn't declared the crisis over, but he comes close to adopting the old advice offered by the salty New Englander, Sen. George Aiken, when the interminable war in Vietnam had reached its greatest point of nationwide frustration. We should mass all our forces at the piers in full dress uniforms, Aiken said. Then, to the accompaniment of bands and cheers, we should declare the war won, board the waiting ships and sail away.
Carter hasn't proclaimed victory. But his statement that the Iranian crisis has become more manageable allows him -- and the country -- to move on to other matters of pressing need at home. The president and the people both have been held hostage by this consuming tragedy long enough.
The doesn't mean we can turn our backs on Iran and our hostages -- or draw no lessons from this painful affair. Nor does it mean the Iranian crisis is over. For no matter what the president says, the prospects for resolving it appear glomier than ever. This inevitably raises the possibility that a wounded, desperate president could be tempted to try other methods of force to rescue the hostages and restore his reputation.
One of the few redeeming aspects of the six-month ordeal over Iran has been the striking lack of ugly recriminations on the way it was handled here at home. Even the failure in the desert, surely the worst blow to national pride in years, has been remarkably free from a search for scapegoats. Aside from some initial fingerpointing in public at the Pentagon, little attempt to affix blame has resulted. No who-lost-China debate, and accompanying character assassination, have stained the land.
That sign of good sense and maturity has been especially welcome since we are in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election year.Still, that very political fact compels closer examination of the Iranian question, from taking of hostages to military action months later, than we have been getting. It would be a disservice to the meaning of the election if the present understandable public desire to put Iran out of mind prevails. The trick becomes how to look at the issue without descending into demagoguery.
The public record available from the time of the embassy takeover shows a president exercising studied restraint month after month. On almost every public occasion when he spoke on Iran he stressed a temperate reaction.
On Nov. 28 in his first press conference after the Americans were held, for instance, Carter was asked about the use of force.
"Mr. President, the Ayatollah Khomeini said the other day -- and I'm using his words -- he doesn't believe you have the guts to use military force," a reporter asked. "He puts no credibility in our military deterence. . ."
Carter replied: "It would not be adviseable for me to explore publicly all the options open to our country." Then he added: "I will explore as best as I can, through diplomatic means and through peaceful means, to ensure the safety of our hostages and their release."
Several weeks later, he reaffirmed that position in stronger terms. He met privately with the families of the hostages at the State Department, and then publicly told employes there: "I an not going to take any military action that would cause bloodshed or arouse the unstable captors of our hostages to attack them or to punish them. We're going to be very moderate, very cautious, guided and supported and advised by Secretary Vance. Our purpose is to get the hostages home and get them safe."
We now know that planning for a mlitary mission into Iran has been proceeding from days immediately following the embassy occupation. What we don't know, despite all the public statements and private briefings this past week, are all the factors that prompted Carter to opt for a swift military solution now. We don't know the full extent of Cyrus Vance's dissent. We don't know enough of the details of the military plan to reach a judgment on its soundness. We don't know the nature of the critical examination of its risks and the weighing of the consequences of failure by the civilian leaders.
The president's attempts to answer these and other questions the other night at his press conference were far from satisfactory. His assertion that "The actual rescue operation would have been the easiest of the three phases" -- that is, physically freeing the hostages from the heavily guarded embassy compound -- strains belief.
And the idea that he and his advisers approved a splendid plan that went awry only because of a bit of bad luck adds to the doubts. Too many past failed covert operations have been billed as sure successes in advance: the Cuban brigade that landed at the Bay of Pigs didn't even get orders beyond the first three days of combat securing the beachhead. What were they to do then? the Cuban military commander asked his American adviser. The best would be a waltz, came the reply: keep going straight ahead until you reach the Central Highway of Cuba, turn left, and march victoriously into Havana.
The president hasn't helped dispel these kinds of questions by his statement that "the political connotations of the holding of the hostages is not a factor, for me." Whether he sees it that way or not, the hostage problem has affected this presidential year and all the political contenders as nothing else.
"It's certainly time for citizens to consider other matters and for the president to address them away from Washington. But assessing Jimmy Carter's actions in handling the hostages is part of the judgment citizens should render before retaining or rejecting this president.