To the families of the 3,000 Americans trapped in Kuwait and Iraq, President Bush's declaration yesterday that their relatives are hostages simply confirmed what many had long feared and fueled their own sense of helplessness.
"This whole time we've known they're hostages," said Connie Ogle, daughter-in-law of Rainard Walterscheid, a Texas oil worker who was taken from Kuwait to Baghdad in the first days of the invasion. "Nothing's changed, really."
"Now we don't know what's going on; if he's eating, if he's sleeping," she said.
As with many of the families, Bush's declaration left Ogle with mixed emotions."I don't really know if it's done anything for the Americans," she said, adding: "I don't think it's helping them. It might hurt them if we go to war."
Patricia Hale of Spring, Tex., whose husband, Edward, was a drilling supervisor in Kuwait near the Iraqi border, said she felt paralyzed by a sense of powerlessness.
"I just find myself waiting," she said. "I'm to the point of not wanting to think of anything political. I just want my husband back."
While upset, Hale, like other family members interviewed yesterday, said she cannot fault Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf crisis. "Until I can tell him how to do better, I don't want to second-guess him," she said. "When you're in danger, there's a limit to how much more -- or less -- you can be in danger."
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher sought to reassure the families that the president's statement did not lessen the government's concern for their relatives.
"We say to them that we will continue to do everything we can to obtain the release of these people," he said. "We say to them that the prime concern of our people in Baghdad and in Kuwait has become the safety and welfare of Americans. And we say that there are many other foreigners who are in the same boat and that we're working together with other countries to secure their freedom."
U.S officials also sought to assure the families that the stated policy of not dealing with any group that holds American hostages would not preclude the United States from moving on various diplomatic fronts to pressure the Iraqis into freeing the Americans. "Our policy continues to be to press for what is right," said a government official.
Aware of comparisons with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, administration officials have sought to avoid inflaming U.S. public opinion with reminders of the protracted Iranian hostage situation 11 years ago. Officials fear such a development could erode public support for any military action the United States takes against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Some administration officials, however, said the American people are less likely to demand precipitous action, such as a rescue effort to free the hostages, after a decade of kidnappings and terrorist demands.
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned the administration on Sunday to not let its concerns about the Americans dominate its deliberations. "There has got to be the right balance between concern for the hostages, but not letting our policy be driven by the the existence of hostages or be paralyzed by it," he said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
In contrast to the relatives of the 52 U.S. Embassy officials seized in Tehran in 1979 who were able to mobilize wide support for the captives' safety and held news conferences calling attention to their plight, the relatives of the Americans now in Kuwait and Iraq have maintained a relatively low profile. All of the Iranian hostages were government employees, highly educated professionals for the most part, and their relatives had experience dealing with the media.
Thus far, relatively few of the hostages held by Iraq have been identified, and the only group formed to express concerns for them is based in Champaign, Ill. The families who have talked to reporters haved tended to be blue collar, their husbands and sons Texas oil workers lured to the Middle East by high salaries they could earn there. Unlike the families of the hostages in Iran, they have not agreed on a single spokesman or strategy.
Dorothea Morefield of Annandale, whose husband Richard, a Foreign Service officer, was among those caught in Tehran, said she thinks the relatives of the new hostages face "the same kind of situation; they're caught as pawns in a situation totally out of their control.
"They're getting a lot of publicity now," she said, "but the question is will it keep up."
Louisa Kennedy of New York, who served as spokeswoman for the Iranian hostage families, said there does not appear to be the same level of concern for the situation as there was in 1979. "I'm not sure the American public is going to want to think too much about Americans in Iraq right now," she said, citing oil prices and the threat of war. "I don't think it's going to be at the top of their thoughts."
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former National Security Council staffer and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, said this may give Bush a freer hand than President Jimmy Carter had in dealing with his hostage crisis 11 years ago.
"We really didn't have this type of situation then," said Sonnenfeldt. The Iranian hostage situation involved a much smaller number of Americans, "all government people, and we weren't at war," he said. Nor were the nationals of other countries involved as they are now, he said.
Sonnenfeldt also agreed the families of the Americans held in Kuwait and Iraq have yet to mobilize public opinion for any particular course of action, he said.
"I don't have the impression that there is a great deal of constraint on the president from this group or other groups such as those worried about the price of oil," he said. But Sonnenfeldt said "the number" of Americans being held in the two countries would itself be a constraint.
He said Bush would need stronger support before he could take any military action against Iraq and said the public would probably support him only if his action were seen as a response to "some triggering event" against the Americans.