AFTER the reduction of nuclear weapons, international terrorism is probably the most serious foreign policy problem confronting the Reagan administration. All the experts think terrorism will be with us for a long time, and that it will become more dangerous. But the Reagan administration's approach to terrorism has become one of dither and muddle.
The talk is tough: no negotiation with terrorists. But beyond the talk, the policy has been translated into a something-for-everyone approach, depending on the countries involved and the circumstances. It is a policy based on expediency and ad hoc, hip-pocket political judgment.
If Libya, a small country the USSR is unlikely to back, gets caught dabbling in terrorism - as it has - it gets bombed by the US.
If Syria, a larger and more important country which the Soviet Union may very well back, gets caught dabbling in terrorism - as it has - it gets a diplomatic tap on the nose from the United States.
If the Soviet Union blatantly perpetrates state-sponsored terrorism - as it did by seizing Nicholas Daniloff - it gets what it wants from the US, its own spy back in trade for Mr. Daniloff's freedom.
And if Iran, surely one of the most reprehensible dabblers in international terrorism, makes a signal or two that it is prepared to help spring some innocent hostages, it apparently gets a cake, a Bible, and a bundle of military supplies from the US.
If this amounts to a carefully constructed strategy to deal with international terrorism, then my name must be Poindexter.
There may very well be reasons for encouraging so-called ``moderate'' forces in the Iranian power struggle under way. That is a separate issue.
But if the Reagan administration has indeed paid Iran for hostages with munitions, that is a tawdry chapter in the history of a great nation.
It is wrong for several reasons:
It may not effect the release of other hostages still in captivity.
It may encourage seizure of additional hostages.
After the US has strong-armed a string of other nations not to help Iran in its war with Iraq, it makes American credibility look like a limp rag swaying in the breezes of expediency.
It disturbs and embarrasses a number of our allies. The red-faced Italians are conducting an inquiry to see whether the munitions went through their ports. The jubilant French, who have been beaten up on for being too cozy with Syria, note that the US is not above dealing with those engaged in international thuggery. And the British, with icy politeness that means they are furious, indicated disapproval.
The administration took a long time to think through its attitude toward terrorism. Secretary of State George Shultz was long out front advocating a policy of toughness with terrorists. For a while it seemed his view had prevailed. Now come the reports of under-the-counter dealing with Iran. What a crisis of conscience Mr. Shultz must be facing as he weighs his strong support of President Reagan on the one hand against his involvement in a policy that runs counter to what he has advocated.
The anguish a President must feel when some of his citizens are held hostage is clear. One can understand the motivation that impels to action to get them released. That does not mean that those operations should get approval, especially when they are unwise. And especially when they may jeopardize the lives of a greater number of Americans in the future.
During the hostages' siege, their families berated the administration for doing too little to get their loved ones freed. In retrospect, the administration's mistake may have been not that it did too little, but that it did too much, to acquire the hostages' freedom.