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Reagan chooses diplomacy over force in handling hostage crisis

The second week of the Beirut hostage crisis showed President Reagan choosing a cautious diplomatic approach to the problem rather than trying to resolve it by force. He had been under pressure from his right wing to take stronger action. He asked his National Security Council to prepare a list of economic and other measures that might be used if diplomacy failed. But up to the time of writing he was keeping such measures as blockades and embargos in reserve. Instead he was encouraging his diplomats to continue to seek release of the hostages through negotiation.

An interesting feature of the affair was Syria taking a role in pushing the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon toward compromise. This followed a visit to Moscow by Syrian President Hafez Assad.

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Moscow was avoiding open involvement in the affair. Its press was largely quiet. While making derogatory remarks about the United States using the crisis to build up its forces in the region, it did not actively encourage the hijackers. There were hints that Soviet influence was being exerted through the Syrians toward eventual release of the hostages.

Mr. Reagan enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for taking the diplomatic rather than the military road. In effect, a consensus evolved on a moderate rather than militant approach to the problem. In this atmosphere, 31 Shiites were released from an Israeli prison camp; and one US hostage was released in Beirut, allegedly not as a response, but on humanitarian grounds.

While neither side would admit that any release of hostages was in response to anything done or promised by the other, the fact is that a mutual release of hostages did take place. Call it partial, tentative, and exploratory -- nonetheless, there was during this second week of the crisis a partial and mutual release of hostages.

Meanwhile, in the back rooms of diplomacy in Washington the thinkers and long-term planners have been wrestling with the question of how to handle regimes like that of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.

The Ayatollah occupies a special position in the Shiite community. He is the most prominent and successful of all Shiite clergymen. His thinking influences Shiite behavior in other countries. The actions of the hijackers, who are Shiites, derive in part from the fact that the Ayatollah brands the US as ``the great Satan.''

Must a sense of hostility continue between the Ayatollah and the US? He has it within his power to reduce substantially the number of hostile acts committed by Shiite radicals against the US. It is unlikely that any approach to him could make much difference in the present hostage crisis. But in the long run it might be possible to reduce the possibility of repetitions. Rapprochement might prove more fruitful in this regard than retaliation.

Also, might there be value in talking to the Soviets about new international procedures aimed at restraining and containing such acts of terrorism in the future?

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It is axiomatic in right-wing political quarters in Washington that all such acts of terrorism are attributable to Moscow. But there is little rapport between Moscow and the Ayatollah.

Moscow has a reason to seek a restabilization of the Middle East. Instability, particularly if caused by fanatical Muslim fundamentalism, could erode Moscow's local clients such as Syria, and even spread to border regions in the Soviet Union where most of the population is Muslim.

Muslims make up only some 11 percent of the total Soviet population, but they predominate in the less heavily settled provinces in the southeast part of the country.

Since Reagan came to office the main subject of discussion between Moscow and Washington has been arms control.

The paucity of mutual interests is one reason that nothing has yet come of the idea of a summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Could new international agreements aimed at curbing terrorism be a subject for highest level discussion and conceivably agreement?

Meanwhile, the important new development of the week in world affairs was the fact that when Reagan found himself in a bona fide crisis he behaved with caution and restraint. He put aside the advice of those who wanted force. Once more, the rhetorical ideologist in the White House was seen to be an operational pragmatist.

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