WASHINGTON — The USS Cole comes limping home, an ugly gash in its side, a visible symbol of the impotence of American omnipotence in the face of elusive terrorism. The very presence of this warship in Arabian waters was meant to signal American strength. Now, American warships have been withdrawn from Arabian ports.
To the attack on the Cole, President Clinton, like presidents before him, delivered a ritual response: "We will find out who is responsible and hold them accountable." President Reagan said it better in 1985 of Mohammed Abbas, who masterminded the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro: "You can run, but you can't hide." But in the end, Mr. Abbas got away, released by Italy despite American protests.
Since the bombing of the US Marines in Beirut in 1983, it has turned out that most terrorists do go unpunished, in part, because America cannot enforce its will in locating them. After the 1996 truck bombing of the Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government stubbornly refused the FBI access to suspects and witnesses, apparently more concerned about superpower influence than terrorist influence.
Something like that seems to be happening now in Yemen. Despite a letter from Mr. Clinton and an appeal from FBI Director Louie Freeh on the spot, Yemen has refused American access to scores of suspects and witnesses. The FBI contingent has moved from an Aden hotel to an American ship at sea.
Under public pressure to do something about terrorist outrages, the US government sometimes lashes out, as with the bombing attack on Libya in 1986 that Mr. Reagan ordered after a bomb incident in a Berlin cafe. Or the missile attacks ordered by Clinton after the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998. One attack, on the Afghan headquarters of terrorist chief Osama bin Laden, did him no harm. Another attack was launched against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected, without convincing evidence, of making weapons of mass destruction.
Now, at the height of the presidential campaign, we get strong words about the Cole. From Governor Bush: "There must be a consequence." From Vice President Gore: "This is a situation that will bring a response." The rhetoric of America's supremacy persists, but the reality has changed.
Another thing we are learning from the bombing of the USS Cole: Yemen's investigation has tentatively concluded that the suspects belonged to the Islamic Jihad, veterans of the American-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. This may be the latest of the CIA's chickens come home to roost.
During the 1980s, the CIA, mainly under William Casey's stewardship, poured $3 billion into supporting the mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan. From across the border in Pakistan, the agency helped to set up camps to train militants in bombmaking, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare. Many of the 15,000 trainees were volunteers from other Islamic countries. One was a young man from Saudi Arabia named Osama bin Laden.
Once the Afghan war was ended, some of the American-supported militants found new targets. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman became ringleaders in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center in 1993. Mir Aimal Kansi pumped bullets into cars near CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia, killing two and wounding three. Mr. Bin Laden is believed to have been involved in several anti-American terrorist acts before the attack on the Cole, including the bombing of the two American embassies in Africa in 1998.
The mujahideen in Afghanistan had been divided into 12 factions, two of them as virulently anti-West as they were anti-Soviet. The late CIA director Casey cherished them all as freedom fighters and persuaded Reagan to give full support to all the factions.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1992, mujahideen extremists moved into Egypt with a series of attacks intended to undermine President Hosni Mubarak by scaring tourists away.
Then came America, the "Great Satan" itself. After the trade-center bombing, a letter claiming credit arrived from something calling itself the "Liberation Army, 5th Battalion." That was mujahideen language.
And now the attack on the destroyer Cole in the harbor of Aden. Some dividend on the Reagan administration's investment in freedom fighters!
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society