To the rest of the world, the United States looked weak, ineffectual and at the mercy of rogue regimes like Iran’s under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose revolution it had been incapable to understand and unwilling to adapt to.
Symbol of a Larger Failure
The rescue mission’s failure symbolized larger failures of the Carter administration in particular and of American policy toward the Middle East in general. Incoherence characterized both. Carter’s vow not to campaign for reelection and imprison himself in the White House until the hostages were released came to represent America’s own siege mentality as the country obsessed over the crisis, inflating the crisis “with an apocalyptic importance that it lacked inherently” (as Jonathan Schell wrote in the New Yorker shortly after the failed rescue).
The growing chorus in the country for doing something, anything, to secure the release of the hostages, and to use force if necessary—if only to get over the phobia of the use of force that had affected American foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam war—was another fatal factor leading to the failed rescue. Right-wingers alone weren’t calling for force. The New York Times and the Washington Post both supported the attempted rescue, dubbed Operation Eagle Claw, even though, had it been successful, it would have almost certainly entailed the use of overwhelming force and caused numerous casualties.
Incoherence and Conflicts of America’s Mideast Policy
The story of the hostage rescue illustrates a clash that has often characterized the multi-headed incoherence of American policy toward the Middle East. On one hand, there was nuanced, reasoned policy based on diplomatic patience, history and understanding of the local terrain (physical and political). That camp was represented by Vance and Carter in the early weeks of the crisis.
On the other hand, there was less policy than a reactive, retributive impulse designed to show American toughness to the world—a noisier, more bombastic approach that focused on ends rather than means, losing the original objective along the way (bringing the hostages home safely). That camp was represented by Carter’s national security adviser, Zbignew Brzezinski, and by Republican critics outside the administration.
Carter’s Shift: From Caution to Belligerence
Carter’s principled position against the use of force held fast for the first few months of the hostage crisis.
The disastrous outcome of the Mayagüez crisis, just four years earlier, was fresh in Carter’s mind. On May 12, 1975—just two weeks after the fall of South Vietnam—the American cargo ship Mayagüez and its 40-man crew were seized by a Khmer Rouge naval force in international waters, off the coast of Cambodia. President Ford immediately deployed a massive naval and air force to counter the seizure, bombing and strafing gunboats escorting the Mayagüez, and hastily ordering a rescue mission. Ford’s decision was rash and poorly thought-out. The Khmers had released the crew before the rescue mission, which went ahead anyway on may 15. By the end of the operation, the crew was safe, but 41 American soldiers were needlessly killed in the engagement with the Khmers.
Carter was severely critical of Ford’s action regarding the Mayagüez: “I have a very real political awareness that at least on a transient basis the more drastic the action taken by a president, the more popular it is,” Carter said in a March 29, 1980 Washington Post article. “When President Ford expended 40 American lives on the Mayagüez to save that many people who had already been released, it was looked upon as a heroic action, and his status as a bold and wise leader rose greatly. This is always a temptation.”
Brzezinski Bullies for a Shock Assault
Carter would eventually succumb to that temptation as Brzezinski bullied it through the president’s inner circle despite the opposition of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and several other members of the administration, who thought a rescue mission doomed to failure. Writing in his memoirs, Vance said that he “believed strongly that the hostages would be released safely once they had served their political purpose in Iran.” He also believed that launching a rescue mission was risky and ill-fated. He was proven right on both counts.
But Vance’s power in the Carter administration had waned. The real power on foreign policy was Brzezinski, who said in a New York Times Magazine account of the rescue attempt that he had “telephoned Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and instructed him to have the Joint Chiefs of Staff develop a plan for a rescue mission” on Nov. 6, 1979—two days after the Americans were taken hostage in Tehran. Once Brzezinski put that train in motion, he refused to give less extreme options more serious consideration. Less known are the extent to which Brzezinski was ready to apply force, and the motives behind his approach. His April 1982 account of the failed operation revealed that one day before the operation, Carter had rejected a plan—in fact, Brzezinski’s plan—to cloak the rescue in a vast, punitive military assault on Iran. As a diversionary tactic, the military had been instructed to stage a collision with a Russian ship to take attention away from Iran, and perhaps prevent the Soviet Union from intervening there. Brzezinski had proposed that Carter allow the talking of Iranian hostages as bargaining chips during the operation.