WASHINGTON -- For six months since taking the oath of office, George Bush had carefully maneuvered to distance himself from the issue of terrorism, but on Monday he was plunged into the worst foreign policy crisis of his presidency by the same uncontrollable nemesis that damaged Ronald Reagan and ended Jimmy Carter's hopes for a second term.
"It is the biggest political test for the Bush Administration to date," said Geoffrey Kemp, National Security Council director for Middle East affairs during the Reagan presidency. "The crises in China and Panama were not as serious, and American lives were not at stake. . . . This is a can of worms."
The dilemma confronting the Bush Administration as a result of the reported hanging of Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins extends far beyond terrorism, ranking current and former officials agreed. It threatens to jeopardize the Administration's efforts to move forward in several broad areas of Middle East policy:
-- The fate of 14 other Western hostages in Lebanon, at least one of whom was the subject of a new death threat Monday.
-- Efforts to defuse tension between the United States and Iran after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death.
-- U.S. relations with Israel, including the current American initiative on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
-- The new Arab League initiative to resolve Lebanon's civil strife.
Like his two predecessors, Bush has only limited options for dealing with the multifaceted repercussions of Higgins' apparent execution. The Marine officer was killed, according to his captors, in retaliation for the abduction last week by Israeli commandos of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, 36, a leader of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah organization. Obeid is believed by U.S. authorities to have played a key role in past incidents of terrorism.
"Dealing with terrorism is extremely difficult. You can often do more harm than good in responding," said Robert E. Hunter, a senior National Security Council director during the Carter Administration. "Very rarely is there ever a clear-cut situation where you can do things that are going to expiate the (American public's) feelings of anguish and at the same time aren't going to make matters worse."
The problem of U.S. response is most immediately--and dramatically--evident in the fate of the 14 other Western hostages in Lebanon, including eight Americans. On Monday, a foreign news agency received anonymous telephone threats from the Revolutionary Justice Organization against Joseph J. Cicippio, an American abducted in September, 1986, and Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, kidnaped in January, 1987.
There have been threats to kill other hostages unless Israel releases Obeid, but U.S. officials have no indication whether the threats actually came from those holding the hostages. Nevertheless, the threats limit American options.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official predicted that the videotape of what apparently is Higgins' barefoot body swinging from a makeshift gallows will create unprecedented pressure on the Administration to act.
But he acknowledged: "There are no viable military alternatives that do not endanger the lives of other Americans. We have intelligence about where Hezbollah and the (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards have bases in Lebanon. But any strike might lead to harm of other Americans.
"And a decision to bomb, which would be easier and more efficient than sending in troops, would almost certainly kill many more innocent Lebanese civilians than Shiite extremists," he added. "The reaction to civilian deaths could in turn mobilize more support for the radicals."
The Catch-22 nature of the situation reportedly is the main reason that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended against a surgical military strike in Lebanon.
Sources close to the Joint Chiefs also said rescue attempts had virtually been ruled out, since several units under the Hezbollah umbrella hold the remaining eight Americans in different locations. It is unlikely that any military operation could successfully get all eight out at the same time, thus allowing time for possible revenge killings of those still held.
Meanwhile, political options "dried up a long time ago," the counterterrorism official said. "There is no authority in Lebanon, and our policy has always prevented dealing directly with the captors."
The one hope for eventual peaceful resolution of the prolonged hostage ordeal--a gradual rapprochement with Iran's new regime--also may have evaporated because of Israel's abduction of Obeid.
Indeed, State Department sources indicated that from this point of view, Israel's timing could not have been worse. The Israelis mounted their commando raid on the very day that the Islamic republic held an election for a new president to lead Iran in the post-Khomeini era.
Access to Technology
The winner, Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, is widely viewed as a pragmatic politician interested in eventually ending the hostage crisis, in part to gain access to the Western technology and expertise needed to reconstruct war-ravaged Iran.
But the Israeli action, the officials said, already may have forced the new leadership to renew the combative rhetoric that typified the Khomeini era. Iranian Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, one of the regime's hard-liners, called for a new wave of attacks against American and Israeli targets worldwide in response to the abduction of an Iranian ally in Lebanon.
"Rather than defuse the tension between the U.S. and Iran, the kidnaping of Sheik Obeid could well escalate the cycle of violence at the very time we had hoped for a breakthrough," a State Department specialist said.
The Higgins situation and the potential diplomatic costs of Israel's action have angered some U.S. officials, especially because Washington reportedly was not alerted in advance.
'Were Never Briefed'
"We were never briefed (about Obeid's abduction). We all learned about it when we turned on our televisions Friday morning," a State Department Middle East spokesman said.
"It appears that the Israelis never factored in the danger to American hostages," said another official. "That was a mistake, and a bad one, because they, more than anyone, know what can happen in Lebanon."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) echoed that criticism on the Senate floor. "I would hope the Israelis would take another look at some of their actions, which they must know in advance endanger American lives," he said.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a longtime supporter of Israel, also criticized Obeid's abduction as a violation of international law. But, Dodd added, "to suggest that Higgins' execution was in response solely to actions taken by Israel is to blow it out of proportion."
What one official characterized as "new grumbling" about Israel comes at a time when the Bush Administration is facing a virtual stone wall in winning Israeli agreement on Palestinian elections.
A Bush Administration official expressed frustration with Israel's "precipitous" raid on Lebanon. "This kind of unilateral action does not help create a climate conducive to peace or mutual trust anywhere in the region," he said.
One angered former Reagan Administration official even speculated that the Israeli raid may have been an attempt to divert U.S. attention in the Middle East from the peace process to Lebanon--"shifting the focus comes at a most convenient time for Israel," he said.
While seeking to avoid a full-scale confrontation with Israel over the effect of the Obeid abduction on the fate of hostages in Lebanon, Bush Administration officials made clear their belief that Israel seriously erred--even if Higgins actually had been executed earlier.
Another potential repercussion involves the Arab League peace initiative in Lebanon, initiated in May. The 22-nation body has given a mandate to the Saudi Arabian and Moroccan monarchs and the Algerian president to come up with a formula to end 14 years of civil strife by December.
"It's a very sensitive juncture and, to be successful, they will have to get everybody on board," said a U.S. official monitoring the process. "This kind of incident can derail the process by exacerbating emotions."
State Department sources conceded that they had been skeptical about the mission's potential for success even before the events of the last several days.
"But it was the only ball game in town," said one official. "And, after trying to deal through Iran, restoring law and order in Lebanon was the only fall-back position" for eventually winning the hostages' freedom.
"If this attempt collapses," the official said, "then we're really in trouble. And if the hostages are still in captivity and relations have not improved with Iran, heaven help us from thinking what will happen to them or how much longer they will be held."
Current and former U.S. officials said the dilemma facing Bush is in many ways more difficult than the problems that confronted his predecessors because of the complexities, as well as the threat to American lives.
"How Bush plays or copes with American outrage over the incident is going to be a test of his mettle," said Kemp, the former National Security Council official, "particularly since there was such a long track record of Reagan Administration rhetoric which, with the exception of the 1986 air strike on Libya, turned out to be a lot of hot air. He (Bush) has to be seen to be doing more."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times