The most remarkable fact about the end of the Iraqi hostage crisis, say many specialists in foreign policy, was that it was never referred to that way.

A decade after the taking of 52 hostages in Iran nearly paralyzed U.S. foreign policy, the specialists say, the U.S. government and the American people chose to understand Iraq's seizure of hostages as part of a broader crisis. In the end, American foreign policy was not paralyzed and the hostages were freed.

Why were Iraq's hostages treated so differently by the government, the news media and public opinion from those taken in Iran in 1979? Is the shift a dramatic change in American attitudes toward hostage-taking and a new understanding of the dangers of placing hostages at the center of foreign policy? Or is it primarily due to the sharp differences between the two crises?

The broadest and most heroic argument offered by specialists in foreign policy and public opinion is that nations -- no less than individuals -- can learn from the past. In this view, the United States has absorbed some important lessons about how to deal with hostage-takings in the years since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

"Presumably we're educable; our leaders are educable," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The lesson of President Jimmy Carter's experience with the hostage issue, Hess said, was: "Whenever possible, play it down." That was learned not only by the government but also by journalists, Hess said.

Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, said he was struck by "the greater maturity of the executive branch and of public opinion" in the current crisis.

"In the '60s and '70s, they learned that you don't commit land forces to an ambiguous situation," he said, referring to Vietnam. "In the '80s and '90s, they learned: Don't let hostages drive your policy. . . . To be fixated by hostages is to be permanently paralyzed. It's to lose the initiative to whoever takes the hostages."

Stuart Eizenstat, a close Carter adviser, praised President Bush for learning from Carter's difficulties with Iran. Bush "made it clear that the prime goal of his policy was not getting the hostages back. We made it the prime goal of our policy," Eizenstat said.

But both Hess and Mead also offered a less charitable interpretation of the same facts: that Americans have become inured to, perhaps even bored by, "the hostage story." The truly surprising headline now, Mead said, would be: "Middle East Despot Doesn't Hold Captives."

"It's now a very old news story, and it's a question of how much you can play the same note on the scale," Hess said. "The media really are responsive to audiences and audiences get jaded very quickly."

Joe Peyronnin, vice president and assistant to the president at CBS News, agreed. "This country, regrettably, has adjusted itself to the fact that our citizens can be held hostage," he said.

Peyronnin argued that what really made the Iraqi hostage situation different from the Iranian had less to do with changing attitudes than with sharp difference between the two situations.

In Iraq, "we were covering the hostages, the invasion, the victims, the diplomacy," he said. "In the aggregate, {hostages} became just a piece of the puzzle. In Tehran, it was the whole story." Peyronnin said that while his network has given a good deal of air time to the Iraq hostage issue, that did not appear to be the case because so many other issues are also in play.

Eizenstat argued that this is one of the primary reasons why Bush could avoid Carter's mistakes. "The hostages were a sideshow here," he said. "They were the only event, or the main event, in our conflict with Iran."

The sheer number of Iraq's hostages also worked against their being the center of the story, Eizenstat said. In Tehran, the number of hostages was small enough that Americans came to know them as individuals, "real people with real families," he said.

"This was a faceless hostage crisis," Eizenstat said. "It's not clear that the American people's attitude would have changed if this had not been faceless." The real analogy, he argued, was not between the two hostage crises but between the Iraqi crisis and the seizing of the USS Pueblo and its crew by North Korea in 1968.

Although the country was enraged by that incident, Eizenstat noted that President Lyndon B. Johnson faced nothing like the pressure Carter did over the holding of Americans because in the Pueblo's case, "nobody ever saw them."

Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) agreed with Eizenstat that "a world of difference" divided the Iraqi and Iranian hostage situations. "In Tehran, there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "There were no visiting rights. There were no phone calls. There were no reports that 'Physically, we're fine; it's the mental stress,' " as there were in Iraq. The most dramatic difference, he said, was that the Iranian situation involved "surging mobs outside who were demanding their scalps."

Peyronnin said that event had an enormous impact because the televised reports this time showed Americans in far less danger.

Even the nature of the people being held hostage was different, said George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"Most of these people were there by choice on essentially commercial endeavors and were aware of the risks and may even have been compensated for them," Weigel said. "These were not diplomats there in the line of duty. These were people who made a conscious choice." While Americans do not want anyone held hostage, Weigel said, they are likely to feel a special solicitude for public servants on assignment for their government.

Chafee added that the Iraqi situation also lacked the horror of the hostage-takings in Lebanon, where "There are no demands, there's no knowledge of who seized them, they just disappeared."

Chafee argued that consistency is visible in public attitudes toward the Iraqi and Iranian hostage situations. "I don't think we've become more cavalier about hostages," he said.

Eizenstat took a similar view. "Among the people in the industrialized nations, the American people are most prone to personalize foreign policy," he said.

Public opinion polls are mixed but lend some support to this view. They suggest that when offered a choice between hostages' lives and the imperatives of world politics, Americans tend to support action to safeguard the lives of individuals.

For example, when a Time magazine-Cable News Network Poll asked respondents in September whether it was "more important to protect the lives of these hostages" or "to defend American interests in the Middle East, 44 percent chose protecting hostages, 37 percent said American interests and 8 percent volunteered that the two were of equal priority.

The presence of the hostages in Iraq also could have compromised public support for war, according to an October Washington Post-ABC News Poll. That survey asked: "If there is a war, should the United States bomb Iraqi military targets even if the hostages might be killed as a result, or not?" The result was a narrow 51 percent to 45 percent for bombing Iraq.