In the wake of actions against US forces in Saudi Arabia, the TWA 800 crash, and the Olympic bombing, demands for tough measures to combat terrorism are again being heard. Both Democrats and Republicans highlight the issue in their platforms. Yet the complexities of dealing with acts of political violence are increasingly apparent.
US administrations, often under congressional prodding, have identified specific states as sponsoring international terrorism and have seriously restricted US relations with them. Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria are on that list. However, Washington quickly found that other foreign policy or political realities precluded consistent actions toward these countries.
Despite North Korea's despicable record of terrorist acts, an approach to Pyongyang became essential if nuclear proliferation in North Asia was to be halted. As for Syria, the Mideast peace process has required keeping open the door to Damascus.
Furthermore, associating terrorists with a single country may be difficult - especially in the Middle East. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, convicted on charges of planning to blow up US Pacific airliners, and a suspect in the World Trade Center bombing, had ties with Kuwait, Pakistan, and Palestinians.
Nationals of friendly countries may also be involved in terrorism. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, currently in prison for a role in the World Trade Center bombing, is an Egyptian. Recent revelations suggest that wealthy Saudi Arabians may be financing such acts. Intelligence may pinpoint financial and logistical support from other unusual sources, but the US often finds it difficult to use such information in ways that are persuasive to the public and to other countries.
Americans are strongly tempted by a military response, but it is difficult to justify military action where the culpability is not clear. Proponents of armed action contend that while force may not necessarily stop terrorism, it exacts a cost.
But what target does one bomb? Training camps can be quickly rebuilt. Attacking a capital risks civilian casualties. Supporters of lethal assaults point out that Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya was quiet after the US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. But the attack on Pan Am 103, for which Libyans stand accused, occurred less than three years later, in 1988.
Lack of European support for US policies, especially toward Iran, is a source of deep frustration in both the executive and legislative branches. The recent enactment of legislation threatening lawsuits against foreign companies that do business in Iran, Libya, or Cuba has not helped acceptance of the US point of view in Europe.
European perspectives on terrorism are different. Europeans have endured both internally and externally initiated terrorist acts in greater numbers and longer than the US has. Their ties with areas such as the Middle East, where terrorist causes flourish, are long-standing and extensive. Their economic interests in these regions are substantial. They are reluctant to pay the cost of sanctions or other acts of retaliation without strong evidence that such measures will produce results. To Europeans, terrorism is more a police problem than a political problem.
In the last analysis, terrorist acts involve individuals - some with a clear national identity, some without. In combating such acts, US policy has been to condemn nations - a policy that has not been acceptable to those whose support we seek. Perhaps the time has come to concentrate on the investigative process, which in the long run has the best chance of bringing perpetrators to justice and generating the international support America needs in the fight against terrorism.
*David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.