The latest move by Iran on the hostages finds antecedents in the intrigues by North Vietnam during 1968 and 1972. So hostile foreign governments have intervened blatantly in three of the last four presidential elections.
Since those maneuvers inevitably bring grief to everybody, Americans need to defend this country and the world against such mischievous meddling. That responsibility -- the responsibility to keep high policy separate from low politics -- falls with special force on the president himself.
The temptation to play end games in presidential politics is not irresistible. President Sadat of Egypt, for example, clearly understands that no lasting benefits can derive from a last-minute political fix. This year he has taken active steps to shelve pending negotiations until after the election.
One reason Egypt may seem so sensible on the subject arises from the combined British-French-Israeli venture against Suez in October 1956. Their calculation was that the election would paralyze President Eisenhower. Instead, the president joined forces with the Soviet Union to oppose the invasion. For better or worse, he succeeded and the Allies failed. The British and the French, if not all Israelis, have learned the lesson.
The North Vietnamese were something else. Twice they tried to make short-term gains by playing "intermestic" politics, as the mix of foreign and domestic affairs is sometimes called. Each time they (and we) paid a terrible price.
In 1968, Hanoi came forward just before Election Day with an offer regarding attendance at the peace table. Lyndon Johnson responded positively by suspending all bombing of North Vietnam, perhaps in the interests of helping the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. But the offer was sabotaged by President Thieu of South Vietnam, who -- with a little encouragement from Republicans backing Richard Nixon -- refused his place at the peace table. In the end, the peace move fell flat, the bombing was resumed (at first secretly), and the war continued for seven more years.
In 1972 the North Vietnamese became persuaded George McGovern could not bear Nixon's bid for reelection. They made an ambiguous peace offer, which Nixon and Henry Kissinger accepted -- perhaps for electoral reasons. When, after the election, the North Vietnamese began to fiddle with the terms, Nixon hit them with the infamous Christmas bombing. The war went on for another three-years.
The hostages in Iran have been a plaything of intermestic politics ever since they were seized a year ago. At the outset, the religious party grouped around Ayatollah Khomeini took a tough stand to discredit secular elements around Mehdi Bazargan, who lost his job as prime minister.
Another secular figure, President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, then tried to advance his stature by trading the hostages against the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Those negotiations were eventually sabotaged by the religious leaders.
In the latest round, the religious party was on the defensive because of losses suffered in the war with Iraq. Politicos close to the religious party -- notably Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai -- moved to use the hostages for a dual objective. They wanted American help in the war, and a leg up on Bani-Sadr and other secular elements.
On his visit to the United Nations in mid-October, Rajai put forward the latest terms, including insistence that the hostages be released in stages. The right response was the response that President Carter should have been making from the beginning. As this column put in on Nov. 13, 1979, the president should "have announced that while this country was generally 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 the takeover of the embassy had been ended and the hostages returned safely."
President Carter has never had the inner strength to take such a position. He has never let meddlesome outsiders know that the United States can't be had by political intrigues. Instead, he has repeatedly tried to draw domestic political advantage from high policy questions. He may not have manipulated the timing of the hostage release, but he certainly invited the Iranians to try the maneuver. He positively encouraged them to use the hostages as a bargaining tool in ways that would both help his election and leave in power in Tehran forces hostile to the United States.
In these conditions, the president's claim that his handling of the hostages will "not be affected" by the election does more than strain credulity. It raises in sharper form an old question: Who is Jimmy Carter? Is he St. Francis of Assisi? Is he P. T. Barnum? Does he know the difference?