Few negotiators have won the release of more American hostages than former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson has.
Consequently, it's hard to argue with the Rev. Jackson's latest unauthorized foray into hostage negotiations - or at least it's hard to do so up to a point.A grateful country hasn't forgotten how Jackson was able to secure the release in late 1983 of downed U.S. Navy flier Robert O. Goodman Jr. after a month of captivity in Syria.
Nor has the U.S. forgotten how Jackson seven months later got Cuba to open the cell door for 22 Americans who had been jailed in Havana.
So it would be churlish to throw rocks at Jackson's current efforts to meet with Iran's foreign minister and to ask the secretary-general of the United Nations to intercede with the same Iranian official - all in an effort to win the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Ten Americans and eight other westerners are among at least 23 hostages who are believed to be held in Lebanon.
But let's all keep in mind the problems and risks involved whenever private citizens gratuitously involve themselves in the conduct of international diplomacy, as Jackson so often does.
One risk is that such personal efforts could easily backfire, disrupting official negotiations and sending mixed signals to the hostages' captors.
Another risk is that such efforts can give hostile foreign interests a chance to create mischief by meddling in America's internal affairs. The 1983 release of Goodman, for instance, enabled Syrian leaders to embarrass the Reagan administration by going outside of official channels. There's also the distinct possibility that Goodman was released not because of anything Jackson did but to add impetus to the movement that was then already underway in the U.S. to withdraw American Marines from Lebanon.
Jackson's current efforts seem bound to be difficult because he has nothing to bargain with, lacks authority to speak for the U.S., and is acting without the approval of Democratic standard bearer Michael Dukakis. Such risks would deter more prudent men.
If Jackson somehow succeeds again against all odds, whoever wins the presidential election ought to consider a suggestion that this page made four years ago - that Jesse Jackson be appointed Secretary in Charge of Talking Hostile Foreign Countries into Releasing American Prisoners.