- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Jimmy Carter left the White House with a lasting legacy, though not one any president would covet. He continues to cast a long shadow over the Middle East, a shadow that wilts flowers, stunts cactus and blights dreams, wishes, hopes and prospects for peace with far deadlier efficiency than the fiercest sandstorm. Mr. Jimmy is well and truly sui generis.

Hostage-taking was only a minor sport in Arabia and environs before the late Ayatollah Khomeini and his rowdy students raided the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, seized 63 Americans, mostly diplomats, and held them in brutal captivity for 444 days.

The terrorists were themselves terrified of American presidents in those distant days before the seizure, when an American embassy was regarded as an impregnable — and untouchable — refuge from rampage and pillage. Terrorists no doubt yearned to inflict mischief and mayhem on their betters, whom they mocked as Crusaders, but they knew enough to think better of it. Then the ayatollah decided to take the measure of the peanut man from Plains, to see upon what meat he fed, issuing a challenge the world had not seen since the Barbary pirates menaced American ships in Jefferson’s day.

It turned out that what Mr. Jimmy fed on was chicken feed. When in the passage of time it came clear that he intended to do nothing but wring his hands and tune in every night to watch Ted Koppel’s riveting “America Held Hostage” (which would later morph into “Nightline”) to learn the specifics of how his administration had stumbled through the day, back in Tehran the ayatollah concluded that it was safe to chivvy the Great Satan, after all. When Mr. Jimmy screwed up a belated rescue attempt, taking it away from the professional soldiers and micromanaging what was left of the particulars after he finished stripping it of its chance to succeed, leaving a dozen splendid young Americans dead in the desert, jihadists across the Middle East began plotting more mayhem. One of those who took a cue from the vacillation and shilly-shallying at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was Osama bin Laden.

Now nearly 30 years on, Ayatollah Khomeini has gone to his plague of virgins in Islamic paradise and Osama is thought to be living in a cave in Pakistan with other vermin. But he has imitators who are not living in caves. One of them is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the antic president of Iran whose goofiness disguises authentic cunning, and with the capture of 15 British sailors and marines, he has set in motion events leading into poorly charted territory.

So far Tony Blair is doing an imitation of Jimmy Carter, calling the kidnapping “unjustified and wrong,” assuring us that Britain is taking the incident “seriously.” It’s the welfare of the 14 men and a woman seized “that is most important.”

Sympathetic words, and no doubt well meant. But wrong. The fate of the hostages is not “most important.” If that were true, Mr. Blair must do whatever the Iranians demand, and do it when and as the Iranians say. What is actually “most important” is to make sure the Iranians pay for their folly, quickly. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can provoke with impunity, the British, who for all their diminished might are still capable of dealing effectively with petty tyrants, it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine what this petty tyrant could get away with once he taunts and threatens with nuclear weapons.

No one can be quite sure why Ahmadinejad is taunting the British now. Maybe he thinks Tony Blair, soon to depart, is too weak to retaliate. Maybe he thinks Mr. Blair’s eagerness to appease his loony left reveals exhausted will. Maybe he thinks this is the way to frighten the British into the embrace of the European eunuchs, relegating them to the ranks of the irrelevant who can only “view with alarm.” (Strong letter of protest to follow.) Maybe this is a taunting signal to George W. Bush.

“Mr. Blair is supposed to be our leader, not our mouthpiece,” the London Daily Telegraph reminded him yesterday. “Neither homely platitudes nor dark hints cut any ice with the likes of President Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guards. There may be neither political will nor public support for an invasion of Iran, but we do have the power to hurt that country grievously … and the threat must be made explicit: release these prisoners, or else.” The alternative is to put in a call to Plains.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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