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September 2003

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444 Days of "But Why Did They Seize Us?"
Review by Curtis F. Jones

US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis. By David Patrick Houghton. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 252. $64.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.)

"Houghton argues that the Iranian students seized our embassy in the belief that it would frustrate a suspected American intention to repeat its previous overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953."

In his highly process and theory-laden account, British academic David Patrick Houghton attempts to determine three things: what motivated the Iranian students' seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in November, 1979; why President Carter decided to free the hostages via clandestine means; and why the rescue attempt failed.

Houghton argues that the Iranian students seized our embassy in the belief that it would frustrate a suspected American intention to repeat its previous overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953. According to the author, Ayatollah Khomeini may not have been party to the seizure, but came to support it as a device for neutralizing rival political factions in Iran.

President Carter's bold decision to mount a rescue defied his previous caution with regards to covert operations. His protestations to the contrary, the rescue attempt was based on his partisan desire to free the captive Americans before the November presidential election. Agreeing with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who resigned over the covert mission, Houghton believes that the rescue operation--risky in the best of circumstances--failed due to bad weather, bad luck, over-cautious implementation (too few helicopters), and all four military services participating.

Houghton's volume is based on available official U.S. documents (official Iranian sources remain unknown) and his interviews with some of the key participants. While he provides a meticulously summarized record of relevant precedents for the hostage crisis, he digresses into examination of dubious analogies and engages in prolonged rumination over conflicting theories. His extended, typo-laden treatment of arcane psychological aspects of decision-making--with heavy reliance on locutions of that trade ("analogical reasoning," "cognitively available," "heuristic") undermines his otherwise impressive mastery of his sources. His seeming reluctance to embrace one specific theory and obsession with the process by which foreign policy decisions are made make it difficult for the reader to comprehend the efficacy of Washington's policies abroad.

While Houghton's conclusions could have been more tightly-organized, it does, nonetheless, contain some valuable admonitions:

  • Civilian planners are often more hawkish than their military counterparts.
  • Planners should guard against equating foreign opposition with irrationality.
  • Planners must constantly be aware of letting their mind sets or personal interests lure them into false analogies.
  • Washington is overly-prone to resort to force. The intrusion of 1953 did long-term damage to U.S.-Iranian relations.
  • Domestic politics is the inveterate enemy of sound foreign policy. More discussion of this phenomenon, and of the putative "October Surprise," would have been appropriate.

Curtis F. Jones, a member of the Board of Directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. In 1975, he retired from the senior U.S. Foreign Service after a career of more than thirty years, including assignments to seven posts abroad.

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