THERE are rumors of a deal for the release of the nine Americans being held hostage in Beirut. President Reagan denies that we are dealing. Each presidential candidate swears he would never be party to a deal with terrorists. Yet it is very likely that a deal is in the making right now. More than that, we should hope and pray that a deal can be made, despite the conventional wisdom that our country should never make deals with terrorists. Why? If you were being held hostage, would you want your government to turn its back on you? Or if other Americans are hostages, do you want our government to appear callously indifferent to their fate? Is it not a hallmark of our society and its government that we have a deep concern for the individual human being?
Beyond that, is it necessarily true that making a deal with terrorists always encourages more terrorism? We should examine that proposition in the light of a long list of US presidents who have made deals to secure the release of Americans held hostage.
George Washington paid ransom to the Barbary pirates for the release of more than 100 American merchant sailors who had been prisoners for more than 10 years. He and his successor, John Adams, also paid tribute to ensure against additional seizures of our ships and sailors. These deals worked successfully for quite a few years.
Theodore Roosevelt was confronted in 1904 with the kidnapping of a would-be American named Ian Perdicaris (actually a Greek citizen). The villain was a bandit named Raisuli who was making demands of the sultan of Morocco. Roosevelt sent the fleet to Tangier and had his secretary of state proclaim, ``I want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.'' When neither action moved Raisuli, Roosevelt obtained the release of Perdicaris by pressuring the sultan to make every concession Raisuli demanded. Raisuli took no more Americans hostage.
In 1968, the North Koreans demanded a confession from the United States that the USS Pueblo had intruded into their waters on a spying mission. Lyndon Johnson agreed to a false confession to obtain the release of the crew. The North Koreans took no more Americans hostage.
In 1970, Richard Nixon encouraged the British, West Germans, and Swiss to release seven known or convicted terrorists from their jails in exchange for 38 hostages who had been hijacked to a desert landing strip in Jordan. Whether spurred by this success or others, terrorists have subsequently demanded the release of fellow terrorists from jails on numerous occasions.
In 1981, Jimmy Carter exchanged more than $8 billion in Iranian assets that were frozen in our banks for 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran. The Iranians have not taken more hostages to demand the release of more frozen assets.
Ronald Reagan, in 1985, pressured Israel to release 766 Shiite prisoners in exchange for 39 Americans held hostage in Beirut after a hijacking. Several subsequent incidents of terrorism have resulted in demands for the release of more prisoners from Israeli jails. It is difficult to know whether these were inspired by this example or other precedents.
Mr. Reagan, in 1985-86, also traded arms to Iran and obtained the release of three hostages. The Iranians continued to demand more arms and five more Americans have been taken hostage in Beirut.
Thus, it is a mixed scoreboard on deals with terrorists. Washington, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Mr. Carter made deals that do not appear to have prompted more terrorism. Should they, instead, have let their hostages languish by adhering to a theorem of never dealing with terrorists? Of course not. But it is an academic point in any event. The record shows that American presidents will make deals with terrorists, some good, some bad. Witness the fact that at the very moment in 1986 that a task force headed by Vice-President George Bush issued a report saying the US would never make deals with terrorists, President Reagan was trading arms to Iran for hostages. We will just not adhere to an abstract, academic theory when American lives are at stake.
It is also noteworthy that other nations who today oppose deals with terrorists, Britain, West Germany, and Israel, have all made deals subsequent to taking stands that they would never do so.
We, the public, need to understand how to distinguish between good deals and bad, rather than just condemn deals as such. The primary criterion is whether a deal will tempt the terrorists to take more hostages and demand more reward. It appears to me that if terrorists obtain something close to what they originally demanded, they are likely to come back for more. Beyond that, we must draw fine, subjective lines, as was the case recently drawn when a Kuwaiti airliner was hijacked to Algiers after one passenger had been killed en route. The Kuwaitis held firm and refused to release fellow terrorists from jail. A deal was made, though, to give the hijackers/murderers safe passage in exchange for the remaining 31 hostages. No one was happy to see the terrorists set free, but that was not an unreasonable price for 31 lives. Moreover, the deal did not give the terrorists an incentive to try it again.
Still we, as citizens, will continue to hear our politicians denounce any deals with terrorists. Political leaders are almost obliged to assume such a posture, lest they invite terrorists to test them. So let's be sufficiently sophisticated to understand that rhetoric and action are two different matters. We must reject simplistic slogans, like never making deals with terrorists, which belittle the special love and concern for our fellow beings that characterize our nation.
At the other extreme, we need not fall into the obvious trap of trading something like arms for hostages. We must be wise enough to identify the middle ground where the terms today for the release of American hostages do not create undue hazards for other citizens tomorrow. There will not always be an opportunity for an acceptable deal, but we would be foolish not to search for one.