In what should only be considered as a last-resort option, public support for a rescue mission appears to be slowly building.
The stakes for President Bush, who thus far has received high marks for his deft handling of an extremely difficult situation, could not be greater.
Rescue missions such as the heroic Israeli raid at Entebbe airport have succeeded in the past. Then, crack troops entered Uganda in a July 3, 1976 raid that netted the rescue of 103 airline passengers taken hostage after their plane was hijacked and flown to the African nation headed by the murderous Idi Amin.
And much can been gleaned from the history of past U.S. rescue missions.
The diplomatic, political and military risks for such an operation loom somewhere between enormous and incalculable, with anything short of complete success resulting in obvious devastating consequences.
The U.S. track record in previous such situations has been mixed.
On January 23, 1968, when North Korean gunboats and Soviet-built MiGs seized the USS Pueblo, a naval intelligence vessel, President Lyndon Johnson did nothing. The repercussions of allowing the surviving 82-man crew to languish in prison, brutalized for 11 months, were felt for years, and U.S. prestige was victimized as well.
Then as now, U.S. intelligence capabilities were compromised as the communists had a field day with the highly sensitive surveillance equipment captured along with our military personnel.
On November 21, 1970, Operation Kingpin was undertaken on orders from President Nixon in a daring attempt to rescue U.S. prisoners of war held at a camp in Son Tay, deep in North Vietnam. A joint Special Forces and Air Force team brilliantly executed the high-risk mission only to find, on their arrival, that the imprisoned U.S. military personnel had been moved and the camp was vacant.
On May 15, 1975, a combined Marine and Air Force operation resulted in the successful return of the crew and the S.S. Mayaguez, a U.S. merchant ship that had been seized by the communist Cambodian Khmer Rouge. In a daring and dangerous mission ordered by President Ford, sustaining the loss of 18 men and four aircraft, Marines stormed Koh Tang Island in the Gulf of Thailand in an attempt to rescue the crew of 40 which had been held captive there, but who had been spirited away by friendly locals via ship just prior to the assault.
The results of Operation Eagle Claw on April 24, 1980, ordered by President Carter to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran were disastrous. With equipment failures in the Iranian desert, eight U.S. personnel were killed in a terrible mishap whereupon the rescue mission was quickly aborted.
The success of Operation Urgent Fury, begun on October 23, 1983, to rescue U.S. medical students in Grenada following the assassination of the prime minister of the small Caribbean island-nation, was a multi-service military operation ordered by President Reagan.
Should continued diplomatic efforts fail in our present attempt to gain the release of the U.S. crew and their U.S. Navy EP-3E aircraft from China's communist government, a rescue mission could possibly be the only option available.
While having to pursue such an option would be regrettable, the apparent continuing internal divisions within China between the government and the People's Liberation Army do not bode well for the success of diplomacy. Adding to the difficulty is the imminent trip to South America by China's President Jiang Zemin, scheduled to depart China in a matter of days.
President Bush certainly has the nerve and determination to move forward with a rescue mission. Hopefully the Chinese will capitulate before they have to find this out for themselves.
Read Dan's previous column:
• April 4, 6:25 p.m. –
• April 12, 5:00 p.m. – WHRW radio in Binghampton, N.Y.
Dan Frisa represented New York in the United States Congress and served four terms in the New York State Assembly.
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