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Reagan played Rambo in hijacker interception

Title: Another example of the Short-sightness of the Reagan administration

Guest Column/Lukas Ruecker

Not much more than three weeks ago, another hostage drama, the seajacking of the Italian cruise ship "Achille Lauro," had a relatively lucky ending. This alone would not be anything new, but there was a surprising conclusion. After the Palestinian seajackers left Egypt by air for a PLO trial in Tunisia, the US Air Force intercepted the Egyptian airplane and forced it to land in Sicily.

What could have been the motive for the hijacking of the Egyptian civilian airliner? The "Achille Lauro" affair was basically over. Due to the efforts of both Italy and Egypt, all but one of the hostages were released safely. The four Palestinian terrorists as well as PLO Secretary-General Mohammad Abbas were on their way to a PLO tribunal in Tunis where the four hijackers were supposed to be tried.

There is only one possible explanation: tough President Reagan, who had recently lost face in the TWA-crisis, strongly needed some action to touch up his fragile ego. Most Americans seem to simply love a leader who shows the world how "strong" and "firm" the United States is.

Moreover, there was the thirst for the blood of terrorists and the disturbing feeling of total helplessness left behind by the TWA-hijacking. An action in "Rambo"-style was just the right thing to generate a new wave of pro-Reaganism and euphoria in the United States.

If the four terrorists had ever reached US territory, they would have had to pay for every terrorist act in the last decade in the name of just vengeance. A fair trial as intended by the Reagan administration would have been a farce -- just like the PLO tribunal in Tunis might have been. We should be thankful to Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi for having prevented another questionable outcome of America's morality and self-righteousness.

Do not misunderstand me: the hijacking of the "Achille Lauro" was a condemnible crime. But this does not give the Reagan administration a title to give lessons in firmness or to take "justice" into its own hands.

Is the jailing of four Palestinian terrorists at least some achievement in the fight against international terrorism? Definitely not. Terrorism is a disease just as the measles is. There is no sense in trying to get rid of each red spot separately; one should not even scratch them, no matter how much the itch. The right thing to do is to fight the disease at the right place, inside the body.

Terrorism and terrorists are symptoms, indications that there is something wrong somewhere. There is no sense in trying to get rid of each terrorist separately either -- the only outcome will be a nasty scar on society's moral skin. To stop terrorism, we must look to its cause and straighten out what has to be straightened out -- in our case the Middle East situation.

For the time being, let us forget that there are "professional" terrorists -- that Palestinian terrorism against innocent American civilians might be, if not justifiable, at least an understandable answer to CIA or official US-supported terrorism against innocent Palestinian civilians; that modern mass media are centered around sensations, indirectly provoking international terrorism.

The four terrorists were captured after they had been released by Egyptian authorities as a part of the agreement that saved the lives of the passengers on the "Achille Lauro." The unavoidable and horrifying result of the interception will be an increase of violence on part of terrorists. Fruitful compromises will become rare. The world will soon have to lament even more Leon Klinghoffers, many of whom will have died unnecessarily.

The sudden outburst of American self-righteousness destroyed in one stroke all credibility in any American commitment to the rule of law, the respect for a nation's sovereignty, and the concern for allies. What remains is the barbaric "might makes right."

Egypt, because of its moderateness, is the best starting point for a peaceful solution for the Middle East. Italy is a member of NATO -- "a valued ally" according to White House Spokesman Larry Speakes. Both nations have been made to look like fools.

The skyjacking itself was a violation of the terms of the compromise that ended the seajacking without bloodshed. The operation violated Italian airspace, territorial rights, and sovereignty. Delta Force units and Italian military were very close to killing each other over four Palestinian terrorists.

Italy released Abbul Abbas according to its long-term Middle East foreign policy of recognition of the PLO, despite the urgent pleas from Washington to hold Abbas.

Suddenly, Italy's strongly pro-American defense minister Giovanni Spadolini decided that what has been the most stable government Italy has ever had is no longer worth supporting. Craxi was forced to resign, reiterating his position that the Reagan administration had offered insufficient legal ground for detaining Abbas.

The Italian press' complaints about Italy being treated like a "banana republic" certainly seem justified.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, seeking an apology from Reagan, heard only one word: "Never." Deputy Secretary John C. Whitehead was sent out instead on a fence-mending mission with a Big-Brother smile. He has been as successful as expected. This is an obvious outcome of something we call economic and political imperialism.

The tensions and the suspicions within NATO continue to increase. International terrorism will seek revenge, one way or another. Israel is taking its chance to deal with Jordan directly, omitting the PLO and provoking a new era of terrorism. The big loser is the Middle East.

But who wants to have peace in the Middle East? Certainly not Israel. Its recent familiar act of state terrorism was bound to throw back all peace efforts for years. Certainly not the United States. Its blind support of whatever has the "Made in Israel" label makes all commitments to a peaceful Middle East and the end of PLO terrorism look ridiculous.

Anyway, Reagan is as popular as before, and that is what counts. Right?