Talking Terror to the People

<i> Jeffrey D. Simon is a policy analyst at the RAND Corp. </i>

There are increasing signs that the Reagan presidency could end on the same note it began eight years ago: American hostages coming home after a long period of foreign captivity. The cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War and the potential for a gradual improvement in U.S.-Iran relations could result in freedom for hostages held by pro-Iranian Shia extremists in Lebanon. Should this occur, the hostages would be welcomed back with the same admiration for courage and compassion for suffering showed the 52 Americans who returned from Iran in January, 1981, after 444 days of captivity.

But on the day hostages come home this time, we should also reflect on the costs to U.S. foreign policy that our decade-long preoccupation with the terrorist issue has caused. This reflection is all the more necessary because there are no indications yet that U.S. reactions to terrorism will change significantly in a George Bush or Michael S. Dukakis administration.

Neither candidate has thus far addressed--nor is likely to address--what has been the major lesson under the past two administrations. Namely, that we have sent a message worldwide: By seizing hostages or by perpetrating attacks, terrorists can wreak havoc on the U.S. policy process. Terrorists can set off a sequence of events that results in crisis after crisis, causing Presidents and other high-level officials to make decisions based more on emotional reactions to human tragedies than upon a consideration of national interests as a whole.

Now, it is almost universally accepted--by President Reagan’s own admission--that it was not in this country’s best interests to have a President so personally involved with a hostage issue that he approved a plan to sell arms to Iran. Then, too, it was not in this country’s interests to have President Jimmy Carter isolated in the White House for more than a year as he wrestled with his hostage situation and put all other foreign-policy issues virtually on hold.


With the public accustomed to grandiose statements and pledges about defeating terrorism, the direction and content of any forthcoming campaign debate on terrorism is fairly predictable. Democrats will point to the hypocrisy of trading arms for hostages--a point in the vice president’s Task Force Report on Combatting Terrorism was “no concessions” to terrorists--and will argue that Bush either knew of the arms deal at the time he was preaching against negotiation, or he was so out of touch with what was going on--the “where was George?” refrain--that he cannot be trusted to run foreign policy.

Republicans will counter with examples of the progress made during the Reagan years in the battle against terrorism: the interception of the Egyptian airliner carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship; the raid on Libya; the attainment of international cooperation in intelligence-sharing, contrasting the strong record of U.S. counterterrorist policy in the Reagan years--except for that one “mistake"--with the weak image projected by Carter during the 1979-81 hostage episode in Iran.

Missing from this debate will be any attempt to level with the American people about the realities of international terrorism. It is not good politics to tell the people that terrorism generally does not pose a threat to national security, or that with so many groups operating around the world, with so many different causes and motivations and potential U.S. targets, there will always be terrorism perpetrated against the United States. It is also not good politics to admit that while a President can try to do everything in his power to ensure the safety of Americans when they travel abroad or try to protect every U.S. installation from terrorist attack, it is beyond any government’s ability to accomplish all that.

While such statements may not make good politics, they can make good sense and possibly make the job a little easier when the next President faces his first terrorist ordeal. Lowering public expectations about what really can be done will help. So will moving away from such useless rhetoric as equating terrorism with “war"--with whom exactly are we at war? If it is every terrorist worldwide, then we will forever be in a state of war whenever a bomb goes off or a plane gets hijacked. Lowering public expectations is an important first step to prevent U.S. foreign policy and U.S. interests from suffering a perpetual state of crisis over this threat.


The media are usually blamed as the main culprits in overdramatizing terrorism and creating conditions under which a President has little choice but to make terror a high-profile issue. But what is often forgotten is that the media not only cover terrorists and victims, they also cover high-level government officials. If the image coming out of Washington is one of crisis, then that is what the media will report--and that is what the public will perceive.

The media did not decide that it was necessary to have a presidential address to the nation on a Sunday afternoon in June, 1985, announcing that hostages from a hijacked plane were now free, thereby making it an event of the highest significance. President Reagan chose to do that. The media did not create the image of a President canceling foreign visits, becoming a virtual prisoner in the White House until the very hour he was to leave office because of a hostage situation. Carter chose to do that.

The recent experiences of Carter and Reagan could make citizens think Presidents have always responded to terrorism that way: treat it as a crisis, make public statements that put the United States into an escalating war of words with terrorists--and push aside all other foreign policy issues to deal with the incident at hand. But it hasn’t always been that way.

During the summer of 1961, President John F. Kennedy was under as much public, media and congressional pressure to respond to terrorism as Carter and Reagan. A “new” form of terror had been introduced and the United States was its main victim: hijackings. Plane after plane was seized in flight and diverted to Cuba. Rumors were circulating that Fidel Castro was behind the incidents, even though the rumors turned out to be false. When Castro kept one of the planes, fevers on Capitol Hill rose to a boil. One U.S. senator called the hijackings an “act of war” to be dealt with accordingly; another predicted that the entire U.S. air fleet would eventually be grounded by fear of hijackings, and a member of the House called for an invasion of Cuba.


In this highly charged atmosphere, Kennedy held a press conference calling for calm. He said that developments unfolding in Latin America were of much greater significance to U.S. interests than a series of hijackings. A special session of the Inter-American Economic and Social Council was convening to consider adopting the charter of the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy’s main economic program to enhance stability throughout the region. Kennedy thus implored the American people not to “get overexcited” about hijackings when more important issues demanded U.S. attention.

The same holds true today, although the issues have changed and terrorism has grown. There is just so much that presidential statements, task forces, threats and warnings can accomplish. The real battles against terrorism will be fought by lesser known figures, such as the alert New Jersey state trooper who captured a suspected Japanese Red Army terrorist, or by dedicated and persistent intelligence analysts who track down every piece of information to stay one step ahead of the terrorists.

That there will always be terrorism is a difficult fact of life to accept. Even harder is the knowledge that for all its power, the United States will not always be successful in preventing attacks against its citizens. But for the past decade, we have given terrorists an additional target: our foreign-policy process. It is within our power to take that target away; it is within our interests to do so.