Leading Article: An unsatisfactory reply to terrorism

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ANYONE who has a simple response to the US bombing of Baghdad has got it wrong. Mixed reactions at home and abroad reflect justified uncertainty about how best to promote security in the post-Communist world and what role the United States should play in that endeavour. With the removal of the disciplines of the Cold War, and the growing threat of international terrorism, every situation must now be confronted almost from first principles.

Bill Clinton had at least two good reasons for his decision. One was that, after a disastrous few months in office, he needed to demonstrate to home and foreign audiences that he could act firmly. This is not in itself an unworthy motive. The leader of the only superpower does the world no service if he is regarded as irresolute and ambivalent about the use of military force. It tempts people such as Saddam Hussein to take chances, and increases the risk that threats of force will not be taken seriously. Bosnia has driven home that lesson.

The other good reason was that President Saddam has remained uncooperative and dangerous and would be likely to become more so if allowed to get away with an attempted assassination of a former US president. He is always probing to find out how far he can go. Given half a chance, he would reconquer Kurdistan, and probably Kuwait, too. The bombing should make him careful, in which case many lives and much expense will have been saved.

But these arguments will not set all doubts at rest. The attack was at best on the borderline of legality. To justify a plea of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter would require evidence of future assassination plans that the bombing was intended to prevent. No such evidence has been presented. Purely punitive retaliation is not self-defence. Questions can also be raised about the killing of civilians in such a raid, accidental though that was.

Second, the recent policy of the United States has been to take international action of this sort only under the auspices of the United Nations. Unilateral punitive raids set a worrying precedent. The proper procedure would have been to wait for the verdict of the Kuwaiti court on those accused of the assassination attempt and then ask the Security Council to respond.

Other doubts will be provoked by the manifest embarrassment of friendly Arab governments. None of them wishes to support President Saddam, but none can afford to be seen to support the Americans, especially as the inevitable comparison will be made with the lack of American support for the Muslims of Bosnia. Douglas Hurd rightly argues that the situations are quite different, but he will not alter the perception among Muslims that the Americans are readier to bomb them in the Middle East than to defend them in Bosnia.

Nor is it likely that the US missiles will have done much to curb the intelligence organisation against which they were aimed. The test will be whether they turn out to have chastened President Saddam. The answer to that question will take time to emerge, but the results of Israel's consistent policy of retaliation are not encouraging.

Meanwhile, the attack looks like an unsatisfactory way of trying to police a complex and dangerous world in the absence of any better machinery for doing so. Even if it turns out to have more good effects than bad, which is far from certain, it is not the best way for the United States to respond to its growing sense of vulnerability. Nor is it a substitute for more constructive attempts to bring peace to Iraq, protection to the Kurds and greater consensus to the search for international security.