For at least two reasons, the American people are entitled to be terribly confused about their country's reaction to the presumed execution of Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins by Moslem fanatics:
Every year the U.S. spends about $290 billion on what it calls `defense,' and invariably when a terrorist group kills Americans, the country's leadership delivers the same Hamlet-like soliloquy on how little is known, can be done, etc.
The government of Israel captures Sheik Obeid, a self-admitted leader of a group that for years has been torturing and killing hostages, and many in the West, led by the President of the United States, take Israel to task for contributing to the problem.
What are the sources of this confusion and paralysis over terrorist atrocities?
While human decency requires sympathy for the hostages and their families, it has to be said that for years the hostage tail has wagged the larger dog of policy. The world's terrorists know that photographs and TV images of American or European hostages in captivity can neutralize their adversaries' options. Jimmy Carter's presidency shattered from its obsession with the concern-for-the-hostages factor.
No doubt humanitarian concern and the public melodrama of the first days after these incidents pose severe problems for decision-makers. But if that is so, one wonders why the U.S.'s political and military leadership resigns itself to a status quo that allows these situations to recur.
The status quo we have in mind is the confident belief, held by the terrorist groups and their client states, that the West will exact little price for their awful acts. Instead of this policy of irresolution, the U.S. could better protect its people and its interests from future assaults if it periodically held accountable--with bombs or their equivalent--the people who by common agreement commit or support terrorism. Ronald Reagan's bombing of Libya is a paradigm of using military force to deter future assaults on the West and its people. So was Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. No deterrent action will foreclose all terrorist initiatives, but it places a clear disincentive in the minds of terrorism's planners. If active deterrence didn't work, Israel would be under nonstop terrorist assault.
Western leaders, their own countries in conditions of peace, may flinch from using military assets as a generalized deterrent. But surely the people of the West, if not their leaders, harbor few illusions about the nature of the political actors who need to be deterred. Iran and Iraq's leadership sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives in their recent war. Iraq's Saddam Hussein then used poison gas on his own Kurdish villagers. Hafiz al-Assad in 1982 leveled the Syrian city of Hama and killed at least 10,000 inhabitants. The terrorists who took TWA flight 847 shot Robert Stethem and threw him on the tarmac. Last December, they blew up 270 people on a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. Col. Higgins's captors gave the world a videotape of a man bound and hanged. What is supposed to deter the next attack?
Israel, a democracy and Western ally living in the middle of all this violence, already has a policy of hitting back hard or launching pre-emptive strikes. The capture of Sheik Obeid reflected that policy, a policy based on simple realism. But we now have the bizarre spectacle of President Bush stating a simple equivalence between Israel's capture of a Moslem gang leader and the gang's constant--and pointless--kidnapping, torture and murder of what are ludicrously called `hostages.' It would not have occurred to us that the U.S. could so blithely and backhandedly dismiss a strong friend and ally.
We suspect that after many years of experience with these incidents, the American people are more than a little tired of their government's justifications, produced mainly by the State Department, for doing little or nothing in the face of such assaults. Perhaps it's time for a U.S. administration to level with its own people:
If the State Department thinks it has some complex Middle East agenda that proscribes military strikes against terrorists, let it say so. Since innocent people are being sacrificed to this agenda, most of us would like to know more about it. Official charades of concern after the terrorists do their killing hardly suffice for that purpose.
Current U.S. policy--mainly tough talk (`make no mistake,' `let no one doubt,' etc.)--is unacceptable because it is so lacking in credibility. The terrorists don't believe it. Nor do their victims. Or their future victims.