Leading Article: A just cause, a bad action

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THE RIGHT, indeed duty, of the United States to strike back at the perpetrators of the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam is not in doubt. No nation, let alone the superpower upon which the stability of the world to a large extent depends, could accept with equanimity the declaration of an open hunting season on its citizens and public servants by a group of backward-looking fanatics. In such circumstances, retaliation is a regrettable necessity.

But whether any particular act of retaliation is a wise one is another question entirely. Is the blow well-aimed? Will it produce the desired result? Are its costs unacceptably high? The US cannot afford to act as if it were a bad-tempered participant in a game of blind man's buff.

In the present political circumstances, the question inevitably arises as to whether President Clinton's decision to permit the bombing of a chemical factory in the Sudan and of two camps in Afghanistan was swayed by his domestic difficulties. If the need to distract the American public from his sexual activities was uppermost in his mind, the episode might yet go down in history as the War of Clinton's Penis. It is not necessary, however, to believe in a conspiracy to understand the value to Mr Clinton of an excellent pretext for a foreign adventure. His military and intelligence chiefs must have been pressing him for action from the start: only the timing of the act, not the act itself, is suspiciously convenient.

There is still room for doubt as to the wisdom of these bombings, however. The idea behind them seems to have been that the perpetrators could be cleanly - surgically - eliminated by means of a little hi-tech wizardry, and thus the problem would have been painlessly solved, once and for all. Alas, the problem of terrorism is not to be solved in this fashion. For not only are innocent bystanders killed in such hi-tech strikes, thus giving the impression of callousness, but also the targets are not reached, thus giving the impression of incompetence into the bargain.

All free societies have difficulties in dealing with terrorism. Not only are their governments expected to operate within certain rules, but also their actions are open to constant scrutiny in the press and on television.

The public is likely to blow hot and cold, to demand a hard line on one occasion, and to demand conciliation the next, when it becomes clear that a hard line itself provokes retaliation by the terrorists. A few terrorist incidents in the US will thus result in simultaneous demands that the perpetrators be punished and that the US withdraw from its futile role of policing the world.

Withdrawal from the fray is not, however, an option for the United States. The embassy bombers did not act because they hate the US for what it does, but for what it is; that is to say, modern, secular, freewheeling, decadent and, above all, attractive to the great mass of humanity.

American cultural imperialism is, after all, the first imperialism in which the colonised long for their own subjugation. What the Islamic fundamentalists hate about the US is the mirror it holds up to human nature.

The US cannot, therefore, ingratiate itself with its terrorist enemies, but it can inflame and encourage them. Sudden blind rages followed by long periods of craven indifference or propitiation, such as characterise US policy towards terrorism, are sure to both encourage and inflame.

What is needed above all is consistency, a policy rather than an occasional reaction to outrages which is designed to rescue the President's standing in the polls as much as it is to punish the wrongdoers.

Whether the US has the stomach for a prolonged and possibly unending fight is yet another unanswered question. A society that is so bombarded with information about today that it is inclined to forget what happened yesterday ("Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone," as the refrain in Mr Clinton's inaugural theme song put it), and in which every innocent casualty is regarded as a tragedy of unprecedented proportions, is not one that can easily follow a consistent policy such as Israel's. The population of Israel is only too aware of what will happen if its government displays weakness in dealing with terrorists, and is prepared to accept sacrifices accordingly; the population of the US, by contrast, regards even a minor threat to its safety as intolerable.

The latest American bombings will probably have stoked the extremists' desire for revenge without having in any way reduced their capacity to carry it out. This is a consequence of dealing with the long-term problem of terrorism on a news bulletin by news bulletin basis. To stir hatred without instilling fear is the worst possible policy for the US.

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