Thirty years on, the lesson should still be clear. There is no such thing as “hard power” or “soft power”, or “smart power” . There is simply power. Power, judiciously and skilfully employed, with a will behind it that lends it credence to allies and gives pause to enemies and potential enemies.
Three decades ago this day, the 444-day national humiliation that was the Iran Hostage Crisis ended, minutes after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. For fifteen months, beginning in November of 1979, the United States endured the holding of 52 of its citizens as hostages to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution. As 500 “students” stormed the gates of the American Embassy in Teheran, the Marine Security Guard personnel were forbidden from defending themselves or their compound. One of those “students”, we know now, was none other than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, current “President of the Islamic Republic”.
The ongoing situation can be said to have given birth to the 24-hour news cycle with ABC’s Nightline, and was a major milestone in the march toward modern television news coverage. But the situation was more than that. It was a world-wide display of American impotence, of our decline as a force in world affairs, which many of our adversaries declared (and some allies worried privately) at the time, was a signal of the end of America on the world stage. The failed April 1980 rescue attempt seemed to confirm an America and a US Military unable to protect its citizens and its interests overseas. Furious and fruitless negotiations by the Carter Administration with the Iranian “authorities” produced little but frustration, anger, and more humiliation at the hands of the people who held our citizens and called America the “Great Satan”.
The signing of the Algiers Accords on 19 January 1981 was pointed to as the nominal event that led to the release of the hostages, even though the accords themselves were never ratified (enacted by President Carter using an Executive Order), as the provisions contained in them would have proven intolerably humiliating under Congressional scrutiny. The Algiers Accords had virtually nothing to to do with the release of the 52 hostages. Mere minutes after the inauguration of a President who understood power and the value of the will to use it, the hostages were released.
One of the great political cartoons of the 20th Century was published nationwide this day, 30 years ago, drawn by the late Jeff MacNelly.
The 52 hostages, those still with us, will never forget the ordeal of captivity in Iran. Nor should we. Lest we forget the lesson. There is power, with all its subtleties and facets. And there is the will to use it. Soft, hard, smart, all of it a part of the whole, and used in infinite proportion and combination. It encompasses deterrence, and the refusal to negotiate with terrorists. And the value of a position of strength. We had a 444-day object lesson that ended thirty years ago today. It is one that we would always do well to heed. Lest this be interpreted as some kind of partisan piece, I would submit that the above lesson is one that FDR knew, as did Truman and Kennedy, and Clinton. The next President from either side of the aisle who forgets or ignores it, does so at his, and at our, peril.