Less than two months ago, President Reagan greeted the American hostages returning from Tehran, Iran, and promised a tough new approach to dealing with terrorism.
But the most recent hostage incident in the Middle East -- one also involving some American citizens -- has shown how little usually can be done to save the lives of hostages without capitulating to the demands of terrorists.
The 13-day drama ended March 14 in Damascus, Syria, when 54 Pakistani political prisoners were flown there and the hijackers gave up the 103 captive airline passengers. All were granted asylum by Syrian President Hafez Assad and all appear to be in satisfactory condition.
Both the hijackers and the released political prisoners have been promised free passage to the country of their choice.
As with the US hostages in Iran, the hostages aboard the Pakistani plane (three of them Americans, who, in a standard third- world scenerio, were branded "CIA agents" by the hijackers) stayed under the guns of their captors until major concessions were won. American, Pakistani, and WEstern action was hampered by major obstacles:
* The incident occured outside United States and European spheres of influence, making the staging of antiterror operations virtually impossible. Though the hijacking began on an internal Pakistani International Airlines flight, it quickly moved to Afghanistan, and, for the last five days, to Syria.
* By fleeing to Afghanistan and Syria, and attempting March 14 to go to Libya (Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader eventually refused to accept them), the hijackers took their hostages to nations not particularly amenable to Pakistani, US, or European interests. They were on safe ground, assured, as in the 1978 Palestinian hijacking of an Egyptian plane to Cyprus, that the host government would not cooperate with an attempt to storm the aircraft.
(In that incident, Egyptian troops stormed an airliner seized by terrorists at Larnaca, Cyprus, and Cypriot troops opened fire, killing 15 of the Egyptians.)
* The negotiations were a matter between the hijackers and the Pakistani government. There was little the US or other powers could do to help insure the safety of the hostages or to work out a compromise.
Pakistan's military government accused Afghanistan of blocking negotiations with the hijackers and actually encouraging them in their mission when they were in Kabul. Pakistan suggested that the terrorists received machine guns from authorities in Kabul. No such criticism was leveled at Syria, however, and the Assad regime appears to have been neutral throughout the episode.
After the deal winning the release of the 52 Americans in Iran, there was much international criticism of the US for giving in to demands that would encourage similar acts elsewhere. But the Pakistani case seems to show that hostage-taking seldom gives much room for maneuvering.