TWO United States citizens, William Barloon and David Daliberti, were freed last week from an Iraqi jail as the result of the efforts of Congressman Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Neither Washington nor Baghdad saw Mr. Richardson as an official emissary. But unofficial efforts may be the only approach to freeing Americans caught in the web of international politics.
International law is usually of little help. Foreign embassies have the right to insist on access and to recommend defense lawyers when one of their citizens is arrested. In Iraq, Polish embassy officials, representing US interests, did visit the Americans, but the legal route to a fair trial and appeal was of scant relevance. Iraq's courts are little more than instruments of President Saddam Hussein. The exaggerated charges and the sentences (eight years for inadvertently crossing a border) were part of Saddam's effort to press the US to lift sanctions.
The US government is inhibited in pursuing cases like this one. Saddam would clearly like to bypass the United Nations and have direct dialogue with Washington. An administration already under fire on many foreign-policy fronts, however, would be unlikely to risk the political reaction that would result from direct negotiations with Iraq. Unofficial efforts, presumably without any administration involvement, become the only option.
Such initiatives require careful preparation. A valid go-between with access to the foreign government is important. Iraq's ambassador at the UN, Nizar Hamdoon, performed this function. Richardson met with him eight times before leaving for Baghdad.
Richardson's success in Iraq raises some questions. Could a private emissary gain release of Harry Wu, the recently naturalized American citizen being held in China on charges of espionage? That case is more complicated. Mr. Wu, in Chinese eyes, violated Chinese law by secretly photographing prison labor camps. In addition, Beijing is undoubtedly reacting to a US tendency to move closer to Taiwan. Moreover, the power struggle in anticipation of Deng Xiaoping's death probably inhibits top-level decisions that might represent a favor to the US.
Nevertheless, the pressure for US action by Wu's wife, especially in Congress, will continue. By contrast, the wife of Milton Meier, jailed for 24 months in Iran on corruption charges, is an Iranian citizen and probably reluctant to campaign openly for a reversal of her country's action.
The US faces even greater problems when Americans are held hostage by guerrillas. American citizen Donald Hutchings is being held by Kashmiri rebels. If emissaries can deal at all in such instances, it must be with elusive captors, often seeking ransom.
The US pays attention to its citizens. Almost the first query from the press and Congress in any crisis is whether American citizens are involved. When other nations arrest US nationals, the response is ''they can't do this to us.'' Anger is even more apparent when charges are trumped up, justice manipulated, and the outcome unknown. The down side of national concern over captive citizens is that individual Americans become more vulnerable to seizure by those seeking to attract attention or concessions from Washington. State Department advisories to US citizens to stay out of troubled areas are based on experience.
US administrations have long faced the challenge of freeing citizens caught up in international tensions. At times, force has worked, but it is less and less of an option in the late 20th century. Threats not supported by action become hollow. Diplomatic efforts are often blocked by domestic political opposition to contacts with an unfriendly power. The nation can be grateful when unofficial emissaries like Richardson step in and, with finesse, bring Americans to freedom.