Were The Deals Worth It?

America got the last of its 17 hostages back from Lebanon in time for Christmas. Here are only some of the direct and indirect costs: two American officials murdered in Lebanon; at least one terrorist freed in France; eight Western hostages murdered; 91 Arab prisoners released by Israel; $278 million released to Iran, and now implicit recognition given to the kidnappers by their own United Nations intermediary. Then there was the Iran-contra scandal: one national-security adviser and seven other U.S. officials indicted; the sale of untold tons of prohibited arms and a humiliating gift of a cake. Rarely if ever has the freedom of so few hostages cost so much. When Fidel Castro gave up 1,179 Bay of Pigs hostages, he got $53 million in U.S. humanitarian aid and an enduring blockade. Saddam Hussein turned over more than 10,000 Western hostages last Christmas, and still found himself on the business end of a war. But the terrorists in Lebanon, NEWSWEEK sources say, can now walk away, confident that there will be no U.S. reprisals.

Was it worth it? After Terry Anderson's Odyssean reunion with his family, or the injured Allan Steen's bittersweet insistence that "my brain feels good too," no one can help feeling glad the hostages are safely home. Yet now that they are, it's time to question whether America did the right thing. A foreign policy is conducted on behalf of millions of people, not for the benefit of a few men-most of whom, in this case, defied U.S. warnings about Beirut. If U.S. foreign policy can be changed by kidnappings, every American abroad is a target.

That of course is why negotiating with terrorists is against U.S. policy. That policy is often stated and seldom honored. Its steely pragmatism has always clashed with sympathy for individuals, made familiar to everyone by heavy media coverage. Ironically, in many ways public concern only worsened their plight. The more famous they became, the more valuable they were to their captors. Then Oliver North's scheme to negotiate arms for hostages inflated their perceived worth to unreasonable levels. "The policy of no concessions was a good one," North told NEWSWEEK last week, "but we made a command decision to deviate from that policy because it seemed to offer the most hope for success." North has an understandable ambivalence here, but then so does Terry Anderson. "You can't negotiate with hostage-takers," he said at his press conference in Wiesbaden. "You can't give them anything." If his government had taken that advice, Anderson would still be playing solitaire.

Instead, the United States cut a three-handed deal. Bush signaled U.S. readiness in a speech telling Iran that "good will begets good will." Both Iran and Syria had decided the hostages were hurting their effort to regain international legitimacy. U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar acted as honest broker, so U.S. officials could at least deny talking directly to terrorists. Last summer national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft met secretly with Perez de Cuellar at his town house in New York City, and on Long Island. As the Israelis began releasing captive Arabs, Hizbullah began freeing Westerners. Perez de Cuellar publicly expressed gratitude to his Mideast interlocutors. Said a Western official in Syria: "None of this adds up to a grand exchange deal . . . One side takes a step forward, and the other side responds." Call it what you will, that's a deal.

Administration officials say the terrorists got prisoners for hostages, and no more, and that the payment of $278 million to Iran just before the last releases was the coincidental outcome of arbitrations dating from 1981. Teheran Radio, however, crowed about a no-retaliation pledge from the United States, and while Bush almost certainly gave no formal promise, U.S. officials may well have indicated that a military reprisal is unlikely. Sometimes there's no choice but to accede to a blackmailer's demands but civilized societies dissolve promises made under duress, and punish the extortionists. Bush showed no taste for that just yet: "I want to see this chapter closed before we go further along those lines."

This is not the first time America has closed a hostage chapter. Nor will it be the last, so long as terrorists see that "no negotiations" is more posture than policy. Even today at least two Americans, three Frenchmen and one British journalist still live in Beirut. One of their colleagues fled only a week ago, after he was shadowed by a group of bearded men in a Volvo. Probably he realized that it will take a lot more than hostage releases to bring an end to hostage-taking.