PRESIDENT George Bush is handling the latest Middle East hostage crisis with the right amount of firmness and flexibility. This is just what is needed now as the whole subject of trouble in the region and the proper US role is being examined. The main thing is not to become mesmerized by the hostages - heart-wrenching as their situation is. Nor should the United States cling to worn-out attitudes toward and relationships with the other key players (Israel, Iran, and Syria). Focusing primarily on US hostages and tying itself too closely to Israel is what led the Reagan team to the Iran half of the unfortunate Iran-contra affair.
Maj. Robin Lee Higgins (courageous wife of the marine lieutenant colonel executed by a radical Shiite Muslin group) put it just right when she said, ``Now is not the time for anger and bitterness, for recriminations and blame.'' Rather than react emotionally, the US needs to see what its true interests are in the region and how best to encourage an end to the factionalism and holy war that have taken far too many innocent lives.
More important than getting back the 15 or so Western hostages, in other words, is putting an end to hostage-taking.
With the Ayatollah Khomeini out of the way, with more pragmatic Iranian leaders in place, with both Iran and Syria in dire economic straits, with the Soviet Union and moderate Arab governments (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) now less willing to bankroll states practicing terrorism, the time has come for new ideas.
Does this mean, for instance, greater willingness to free frozen Iranian assets in return for progress on the hostages? Perhaps. But if it does, Tehran's ``quid'' should definitely precede Washington's ``quo.'' Thus is Mr. Bush's ``no deal'' accompanied by a barely perceptible but welcome wink.
That's one possible new idea, one new indicator of flexibility. But mostly what's called for now is ``a long period of quiet and patient diplomacy,'' as United Nations Mideast envoy Marrack Goulding put it the other day. Visits this week by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to Syria and Pakistani Foreign Minister Sahabzada Yaquib Khan to Iran may well offer further openings for back-channel diplomacy.
Bush's flexibility comes with firmness in the form of Mediterranean and Indian Ocean fleets of warships. More important will be standing up to Israel where necessary, putting the friendly squeeze on Moscow and moderate Islamic states in the region (including Pakistan), and - again - seeing the remaining hostages as secondary to the roots of hostage-taking.