NO matter how the United States reacts, the apparent murder of US Lt. Col. William Higgins by Lebanese extremists is likely to have a snowballing effect on events in the region, say analysts of the Middle East. Two Americans and six other hostages are known to have been killed in Lebanon. But this is the first time Shiite Muslim radicals appear to have followed through on a threat to execute an American hostage.
``This is probably the beginning of a new cycle of unpredictable and uncontrollable events in the area, because it has escalated violence to yet another stage,'' says Judith Kipper, a Mideast scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Shortly after the announcement that Higgins had been executed, a group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization threatened to kill Joseph Cicippio, former acting comptroller of the American University of Beirut. He was kidnapped Sept. 12, 1986.
In a conference call with news organizations Monday night, President Bush tried to defuse rising Mideast tensions by calling on ``all parties'' holding hostages to release them ``to begin to reverse the cycle of violence.'' That would include Israel's holding of Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, whose kidnapping last Friday by Israeli forces apparently brought about Colonel Higgins's murder by the pro-Iranian Organization of the Oppressed on Earth. (See stories on Obeid and Israel's role, page 3.)
This latest crisis in the Lebanon hostage situation could provide a pretext for extremists in all camps to kill certain trends toward discussion and dialogue, according to Ms. Kipper.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Higgins may have been murdered some time ago, and that the Obeid kidnapping provided an opportune moment to drive a wedge between the US and Israel by linking Higgins's death to Obeid's abduction.
``This would be a good time for radical Palestinians who would like to derail the US-PLO dialogue to make themselves visible,'' says Kipper, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Other fluid situations include the Arab League's efforts to solve Lebanon's security and political crisis; the Palestinian uprising; the question of Palestinian elections in Israel; Israel's own government coalition crisis; and Iran's foreign relations under Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was just elected president.
In formulating its response to Higgins's murder, reports of which US officials privately say are credible, the US finds itself smack up against a familiarly frustrating dilemma: how to react when the options are extremely limited.
President Bush called a meeting with advisors Monday night to discuss options. But the Pentagon's assortment of standing contingency plans, some of which reportedly involve surgical bombing raids, have the drawback of killing civilians among whom terrorist live.
Also, in Lebanon it would be virtually impossible to track down the perpetrators, capture them, and bring them to trial. Even if it were possible, it would probably endanger the lives of the remaining eight US hostages.
There is little the US can realistically do to punish Iran, which supports to a greater or lesser degree most of the Islamic extremist groups in Lebanon. The US long ago broke off relations with Iran and has already levied stiff economic sanctions against it. The US could try to persuade its allies to impose political and economic sanctions against Iran, but analysts say it is not likely this will happen.
``There are no good options, so the US should just ride out the storm'' and essentially do nothing, says Brian Michael Jenkins, author of a recent RAND Corporation report on terrorism. ``Hopefully the wave of calls-to-arms will subside and they'll be able to address the issue in a somewhat tranquil atmosphere.''
Still, as the graphic image of a man alleged to be Higgins - shown in a 30-second videotape dangling from a gallows with his feet and hands bound - is seen by more and more of the American public, cries for vengeance may rise. In Congress, reaction ranged from pleas for retaliation to calls for turning over the matter to the United Nations and the Arab League. Israel came in for unusually heavy criticism from Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who said on Monday, ``Perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing.''
Senator Dole appeared to be taking his lead from President Bush, who said right after the Israeli kidnap of Sheikh Obeid that he doesn't think ``kidnapping and violence help the cause of peace.'' But on Monday, US officials said they did not blame Israel for Higgins's death. The blame, they said, falls squarely on the shoulders of the extremists who killed him.
According to Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arad, to the best of his knowledge the Israeli government did not forewarn the US of its plan to kidnap Obeid, the religious leader in southern Lebanon of the Hizbullah (the pro-Iranian Shiite militia, or ``Party of God'') who reportedly played a role in Higgins's abduction on Feb. 17, 1988. Higgins was kidnapped near Tyre in southern Lebanon while leading the 75-man United Nations Truce Supervision Organization. His kidnappers said he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
On Monday, before Higgins's death was reported, UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar made a last-minute plea on Higgins's behalf to two Iranian diplomats at an international conference on Cambodia in Paris. After the death announcement, Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar deplored ``the fact that an innocent man, serving the United Nations in the cause of peace, should be murdered in this fashion.''
Higgins's abduction and now apparent murder are seen as a strike at both the United States and the United Nations. This, despite an accord signed Jan. 30 in Damascus, under which Hizbullah agreed not to harm the personnel of UN peacekeeping forces or other international bodies in Lebanon.