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The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
January 1984
Jesse Jackson's Mission to Damascus

On Dec. 29, 1983, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, traveled to Syria to secure the release of a captured American flier, Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman, Jr. Goodman had been shot down over Lebanon while on a mission to bomb Syrian positions in that country. The Reagan White House expressed misgivings about Jackson's trip and his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls thought he was grandstanding. After meeting with Syrian President Assad, Jackson announced Goodman's release. President Reagan greeted both Jackson and Goodman at the White House on January 4, 1984.

President Reagan applauds Lt. Robert O. Goodman, Jr. during
White House ceremony. Jesse Jackson stands at right.
Photo by Darryl Heikes, USN&WR

Syria Releases Captive U.S. Flier to Rev. Jackson

Reagan Expresses Admiration
Syria Jan. 3 freed captured U.S. flier Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr. following a dramatic personal appeal by Rev. Jesse Jackson to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
The Syrian foreign ministry said Goodman's release was attributable to the "human appeal" of Jackson's mission and also to U.S. demands. President Reagan, who earlier had expressed concern over Jackson's mission to Syria, was quick to praise the Democratic presidential candidate for his success.
Before leaving the U.S., Jackson had received no guarantees from Syria that he would be permitted to meet with President Assad. He had originally planned to leave Syria Jan. 2, but said Jan. 1 that he was extending his visit by one day in order to meet with the president. Jackson said, "We would rather wait here in Syria with the possibility of getting Robert Goodman free than to be back home hoping that it would happen." Jackson added that expressions of opposition in the U.S. Congress to the continued presence of U.S. Marines in Lebanon could be helpful in his meeting with Assad.
Jackson and Assad met on the afternoon of Jan. 2 in a villa outside Damascus. After the meeting, Assad refused to disclose whether Goodman was to be released. Jackson declined to answer reporters' questions, stating, "We're in a very sensitive stage. . . . Our mission of mercy continues. It is not over."
....Following a meeting with Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam on the morning of Jan. 3, Jackson announced at a news conference that "our prayers have been answered." He disclosed that Goodman was to be released that morning "upon the instructions of President Hafez Assad."....The Syrian foreign ministry said Goodman's release was a response to both Jackson's "human appeal" and the demands of the U.S. government. The ministry described the action as a contribution that would create "circumstances that would facilitate the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon."
....U.S. diplomatic sources in Syria had previously voiced doubts that Assad would free Goodman without substantial U.S. concessions, if indeed Assad agreed to his release at all.
Goodman and Jackson and his 14-member entourage left Syria later Jan. 3 and arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland early Jan. 4, after a brief stop-over at Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany.
In interviews in Damascus and on the flight to West Germany, Goodman Jan. 3-4 revealed details of his month in captivity. He said his captors had beaten him on the face and body with their fists during several interrogations that took place in the early days of his imprisonment.
Goodman said the beatings stopped after Red Cross members visited him on the fourth day and that he found the subsequent kind treatment he received "unnerving." Goodman said he had been interrogated about "military things" but that he had kept his answers "very vague."
In a television interview by satellite from Rhein-Main Air Base Jan. 4, Jackson said he believed Assad released Goodman because holding him would be "a major impediment" to a U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon. He urged President Reagan to "communicate with Mr. Assad directly" on the Middle East crisis....
In an interview, Jackson alluded to the New Hampshire Democratic primary due to take place in February when he said, "It is poetic justice that Lt. Goodman is from Portsmouth, New Hampshire." Jackson said, "There are political consequences in every moral act. . . . There was risk in this mission, and there will be reward."
Goodman was greeted at Andrews Air Force Base by his wife and two children, his mother and his two brothers. Several hundred Jackson campaign workers and supporters were also on hand to welcome the party home. Goodman told them he appreciated the mail--some 60,000 pieces--he had received while in captivity.
Reagan Thanks Assad, Jackson
President Reagan Jan. 3 sent a letter to President Assad thanking him for freeing Goodman. He also said of Jackson's mission, "You can't quarrel with success."
White House officials earlier had cautioned that Jackson's trip could stand in the way of the administration's efforts to free Goodman.
Reagan said Syria's action presented "an opportune moment" for the U.S. and Syria "to put all the issues on the table."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Jan. 3 that Reagan had spoken to Goodman and Jackson by telephone that morning and that the President had told Jackson, "I have been praying for you. I couldn't be happier."
Although the mission had no immediate repercussions in Lebanon, Pentagon officials disclosed Jan. 5 that the U.S. aircraft carrier Independence had begun an eight-day port call in Naples. The move was portrayed as a normal rotation of forces, but it marked the first time since November 1983 that the U.S. had not had two aircraft carriers off the Lebanese coast, and U.S. officials told the Washington Post that it would not have been approved unless there had been some lessening of tensions in Lebanon.
Airman Welcomed at White House
President Reagan met with Jackson and Goodman at the White House Jan. 4, hours after they arrived back in the U.S.
Reagan praised Goodman for "exemplifying qualities of leadership and loyalty" and said Jackson's "mission of mercy" had "earned our gratitude and our admiration." In turn, Jackson praised Reagan for sending a letter to Syrian President Assad calling for cooperation in bringing peace to Lebanon. He said the action proved that "we have the capacity to save this generation from disaster."
Before making his public statement, Reagan met with Jackson privately. According to Larry Speakes, Reagan told Jackson that he had not replied to telephone calls Jackson made to him before leaving for Syria because of "initial misgivings" about his mission. Speakes said Reagan believed that the mission would have a better chance of success if the President "kept hands off" and showed that Jackson was not acting as an emissary for the U.S.
White House officials cited in the Washington Post Jan. 4 said Reagan's gestures aimed at showing that he bore no resentment for Jackson's success in bringing about what the administration had been unable to achieve. They said Jackson's success would hurt other Democratic presidential hopefuls more than it would harm Reagan.
© 2003 Facts On File News Services

Vol. 123, No. 2, 9 January 1984

An Act of Dubious Diplomacy
Presidential candidates often make high-profile trips abroad, serious-looking junkets meant to convince voters that they know about international affairs and could, if elected, manage foreign policy marvelously. Democratic Contender Jesse Jackson went one step further last week, flying off to Syria in hopes of meeting with ailing President Hafez Assad and winning the freedom of Navy Lieut. Robert Goodman, 27. Goodman's jet was shot down over Lebanon Dec. 4 during a bombing raid against Syrian positions.
For the shrewd Syrians, who invited Jackson after the candidate had asked for Goodman's release, it was a no-lose situation. If they decided to hold on to Goodman, the publicity generated by Jackson's trip would enhance Goodman's value as a Syrian bargaining chip with Washington. If they released him to the populist, relatively pro-Arab Jackson, they could show magnanimity and embarrass the Reagan Administration.
The Administration took a dim view of Jackson's diplomatic gambit. A State Department official said it was bound to "muddy the waters" of U.S. policy. "If he's there milling about," the official said, "we can't accomplish anything. It sends conflicting messages to the Syrians. It's just a political stunt."
....The political stakes for Jackson were well stated by the P.O.W.'s father, Robert Goodman, Sr., a retired Air Force colonel. "Should he be successful," the elder Goodman said, "he will deserve full credit. If the consequences of his actions are that Rob's captivity is prolonged, he should be held responsible."
As he prepared to go, Jackson held press conferences every day, denied that race had anything to do with his trip (Goodman is black), met twice in Washington with Syrian Ambassador Rafic Jouejati, tried unsuccessfully to phone President Reagan and got a 90-minute Middle East briefing at the State Department ....Then he was off, delivering punchy justifications along the way...."We do not choose to fiddle, as it were, while Rome burns."
At last he made it, with two teen-age sons, four campaign aides, an amazing 21 Secret Service men, five American ministers and, he said, "high hopes." Declared Jackson in Damascus: "The ultimate victory would be to get Goodman out, but we've already had an enormous impact. We've put the issue on the front burner."
After a two-hour talk Saturday with Syria's Foreign Minister, Jackson told reporters the Syrians feared that their freeing Goodman would encourage U.S. air missions over Lebanon....
Then Jackson was shuttled to a Damascus military compound. He was the P.O.W.'s second American visitor in a week: Ambassador Robert Paganelli had delivered Goodman a Christmas dinner. Goodman chatted for almost an hour, and seemed exceptionally chipper....Smiling, the navigator-bomber lifted his sweatshirt to show a green T shirt printed with a stylized jet bomber and ATKRON 85, the shortened name of Goodman's aircraft-carrier unit, Attack Squadron 85. When reporters asked what he thought of Jackson's mission, Goodman was careful and correct. "I'm not a politician. I'm a naval officer...Let the people who are responsible for getting me out of here get me out of here."

Vol. 96, No. 2, 16 January 1984
Jesse Jackson Cuts A Wide Swath
Jesse Jackson's coup in winning release by Syria of a downed U.S. flier not only shook up the diplomatic establishment but also promised to echo through domestic politics for months.
In one long-shot gamble, the black civil-rights activist in freeing Navy Lt. Robert Goodman, Jr. ---
Jumped into the front ranks of Democratic candidates for President, at least in terms of visibility.
Insured that he would be a strong influence when Democrats list priorities and appointees if they win back the White House in November.
Made it easier for Democrats to attack President Reagan's foreign policy.
By succeeding in the very foreign-policy area in which critics said he was weakest, Jackson became overnight a credible contender for the White House -- though still an underdog. "The national Democratic Party, which has treated Jackson like a stepchild, will have to wake up and treat him more like a serious candidate," said George Starke, Texas Democratic chairman.
The Baptist minister turned politician attempted to capitalize on his new fame in a rapid series of barnstorming speeches. Telephone calls offering help and money poured in....Jackson added foreign affairs to his usual agenda of social reforms, saying, "Great foreign policy requires great leadership."
Yet skeptics, convinced that Jackson's Syrian triumph will be short-lived, knocked down talk that he might wind up with the vice-presidential nomination. Declared Joe Reed, chairman of the all-black Alabama Democratic Conference: "Jesse can get every political prisoner released in the world, and he can't be elected."
But party officials admitted they will have to listen closely now to Jackson's policy recommendations, because his successful mission to Syria made his grip on as many as 17.6 million potential black voters more secure than ever....
Threatened most of all by Jackson's sudden vault to prominence was the Democratic front-runner for President, Walter Mondale. The former Vice President, who is counting on strong black support, suddenly discovered many blacks in audiences on his Southern tour wearing Jackson buttons. Some blacks pledged to Mondale talked of switching to an uncommitted slate for the national convention.
Mondale and other Democratic contenders who had been largely stymied in their search for a Reagan weakness, seized on Jackson's accomplishment to step up their own criticism of the President's policies in Lebanon and elsewhere abroad.
Not everyone hailed Jackson's actions. The Washington Post and the New York Times, among other newspapers, denounced his mission as a dangerous interference in an extremely volatile situation. Many American Jews took it as further proof that Jackson, who earlier embraced Yassir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was pro-Arab and anti-Israel....

Norfolk, VA, 4 January 1984, Editorial
President Hafez Assad of Syria freed U.S. Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman, Jr. in return for the extensive media coverage of presidential-aspirant Jesse Jackson's appeal mission to Damascus. Major propaganda victories are rarely gained so easily.
Lt. Goodman's release, after a month of captivity, is welcome for his and his family's sake.
But no one should be misled about why the Rev. Mr. Jackson's pilgrimage to the Middle East succeeded. Damascus scored big points at Washington's expense in the contest for influence in Lebanon.
Mr. Assad -- who sanctioned the massacre of 20,000 to 25,000 of his own people a while back -- could hardly have been moved by moral or humanitarian considerations in releasing the naval officer whose A6-E Intruder jet was shot down Dec. 4 after a U.S. air attack on anti-aircraft installations in Syrian-occupied Lebanon....
That the Rev. Mr. Jackson's presidential campaign benefited from the candidate's free-lance diplomacy is anything but certain. Aiding the Syrian cause while Washington is engaged in a test of wills with Damascus isn't likely to sit well with Americans, not even the many with misgivings about President Reagan's employment of the Marines in pursuit of peace and independence for Lebanon.
....Possibly some television viewers and newspaper readers bought the candidate's unworthy suggestion that Mr. Reagan would have worked harder to win freedom for the imprisoned Goodman if the flier had been white rather than black. But a largely negative reaction to the Jackson initiative is more likely.
The candidate's chumminess with the Syrian president didn't sit well either -- and it reminded many of the reverend's embrace of Yasser Arafat. After all, Mr. Assad is the leader of a government that abetted -- if, in fact, it did not initiate -- the murderous truck-bomb attacks that slaughtered scores of U.S. and French members of the multinational peacekeeping force last Oct. 23....
Again, Lieutenant Goodman's release is welcome news. But that the flier's freedom was gained in a way that enhanced Syria's stature was not.

St. Petersburg, FL, 4 January 1984, Editorial
In announcing his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Jesse Jackson said: "When history records our deeds, let the record show that we rose to the challenge, answered the call, reclaimed our faith and broke down the walls of partition that too long have divided us."
Jackson rose to the challenge when first he recognized that his personal intervention might break the deadlock with Syria over the imprisonment of Navy Lt. Robert Goodman, Jr., when he acted by going to Damascus, and when he was successful in persuading Syrian President Hafez Assad to release the American airman.
Jackson's bold performance was good for just about everybody involved.
Certainly it was good for the United States. As President Reagan expressed it, all Americans "are delighted that this brave young man will soon be united with his family and that his ordeal is over." There even was a suggestion that this release may have left the door ajar for further peace negotiations when Mr. Reagan said he is sending special envoy Donald Rumsfeld back to the Middle East for additional diplomatic efforts.
....The release vastly enhances Jackson's standing as a Democratic candidate....He put into practice the philosophy he earlier had preached to young blacks that you cannot succeed unless you try, and he scored a sensational personal and diplomatic victory. Jackson carefully kept his efforts free of self-serving political overtones....
Finally, Jackson's success probably will be good for President Reagan. Although there is little doubt that Syria's motives were to embarass Mr. Reagan, events may not turn out that way. Mr. Reagan's political advisers would much prefer that the President enter his re-election campaign without the nagging problem of a hostage in Syria....
....As a matter of general principle...private citizens should leave negotiations with foreign governments to the President and his diplomats. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, and times when the work of private citizens can be most constructive.
However, for a candidate for the presidency to become involved with a foreign government is particularly risky. That can give a foreign power an opportunity to play one segment of domestic politics against another. Jackson took all those risks and nothing harmful to the national interest occurred -- quite the opposite.
As President Reagan said, "You don't argue with success." By obtaining the no-strings-attached release, Jackson's mission was a total success. His status will be elevated further if the administration will try to build upon Syria's humanitarian gesture by finding a way to remove the Marines in Beirut from their position of danger.

Salt Lake City, UT, 5 January 1984, Editorial

Beyond elation caused by the surprising return of U.S. Navy airman Robert O. Goodman, Jr. from Syrian captivity, the United States has deep and serious decisions to make about a continued military presence in turbulent Lebanon....[T]he Marines still in Lebanon and Navy planes daily dispatched over that war-torn country should be the Reagan administration's chief, immediate Mideast concern.
Support for the White House enlistment of Navy air, sea and ground units in the international peacekeeping forces now facing crossfire in Lebanon is rapidly evaporating. Two of the other nations participating, France and Italy, have already announced plans to either withdraw or substantially reduce the number of troops they contributed for peacekeeping duties. More crucial than that, however, rising sentiments in Congress, among both Republicans and Democrats, favors removing all U.S. troops as well.
....Last weekend, three former Central Intelligence Agency directors, William Colby, Stansfield Turner and James R. Schlesinger, agreed in separate statements that leaving the Marines in Lebanon under current circumstances is a mistake. Even Mr. Reagan's conservative supporters are becoming critics on this matter....
In fact, U.S. public opinion has never agreed that the Marines should become "sitting ducks" at the Beirut airport. But further, it's futile to think this country would ever condone committing the amount of troops for the time it would take to impose a "peace" worth keeping in Lebanon.
So as the glow of Lt. Goodman's homecoming fades, the administration should be working overtime on a plan for retrieving the rest of U.S. military people from Lebanon. Ultimately, that's what the favorable response to the Rev. Jackson's feat means: It's times to bring all the boys home.