THE LOPSIDED majority with which we, the public, and our media still approve of the president's decision to bomb Benghazi and Tripoli on April 15th has to be alarming. Why? Because the arguments in favor of the bombing are so highly emotional that by now we ought to be more willing than we are to take a cold, rational second look.
We're told that Qaddafi is a bad person who supports terrorism against Americans. No one disagrees. We are also told that we must do "something" or terrorists will feel free to continue attacking us. Few disagree with that. Then, we are told that all other recourses have failed and unilateral military action was our only alternative. That's nonsense.
We had not given the alternatives any reasonable chance. In mid-January, the president unilaterally imposed economic sanctions on Libya; then in mid-April, he declared those sanctions to have been a failure. Who would ever expect any economic sanctions to have a major effect in only three months?
The sanctions didn't work because our failure to consult with our allies in advance made it highly unlikely that they would go along with us. To appear to cave in to American pressure would have been unpalatable. In addition, we gave U.S. oil companies in Libya the right to continue operations there for some indefinite period to avoid financial losses. The Europeans are much more deeply committed. Italy, for instance, had more than 7,000 citizens in Libya, all potential hostages. It needed time to evacuate them -- which it has begun doing -- let alone worry about its $4 billion of trade with Libya. Even a slow, patient and methodical approach to selling the Europeans on sanctions would have been difficult. The tack taken by the administration never had a prayer.
A different approach would have had a greater possibility of being accepted. That would be to deny airlines originating in Libya landing rights in Europe or America and to forbid European or American airlines from servicing Libya. Because such a move could be related directly to suppressing terrorism by limiting the movement of terrorists, it would have been easier to sell.
Beyond sanctions, we made very little effort prior to the bombing to get the Europeans to agree on other steps: tightening up on the movement of Libyans around Europe; closing or paring down Libyan People's Bureaus (pseudo-embassies); limiting the freedom of Libyans assigned to those bureaus; controlling the use of diplomatic pouches, including inspecting them for weapons and munitions, and expelling suspect Libyan visitors. Even today the United States has not gone as far as it could in these directions -- not even as far as some Europeans have in recent days.
We also have did not allow reasonable time to see whether collaborative efforts would enable us to find the specific culprits behind the TWA flight 840 and Berlin discotheque incidents. Bringing such culprits to justice is an important step in curtailing terrorist acts. Despite much folklore to the contrary, most terrorists like to live -- and outside of jail.
Finally, we did not, by ourselves or with the Europeans, make any serious effort to discuss the probable causes of the terrorisms we are facing and what might be done about them. The Europeans view us with a certain cynicism here. They see us as refusing to face up to the idea that the disgruntlement of Palestinians with our policies in the Middle East may be one of the root causes of our problems, and instead we are transferring all of our Mideast problems to Qaddafi.
The only area where one gets a sense of collaborative effort being made against terrorism is in improved exchange of intelligence data. But, here one cannot expect many results in just a few months, any more than with sanctions.
What these alternatives lacked was the instant gratification we received from lashing out with bombs. What price do we want to pay for such gratification, however? The argument can easily be made that all we did was inflict a flesh wound on Qaddafi while shooting ourselves in the foot. For instance, it is quite likely that the bombing will cause a further deterioration in our relations with the moderate Arab world; that it will incite more anti-American terrorism, if not from Qaddafi then from the Syrias and Irans and from the Abu Nidals and other independents; and that it has boxed us in as to how we will respond if anti-American terrorism continues, on the one hand because there is a limit to how ruthless we will be, and on the other because we may not be able to pin future incidents expressly on Qaddafi (we gave away our source of intelligence on the Berlin discotheque incident).
And, there are even weightier arguments. First, that by taking the lives of innocent bystanders in the bombing, we lost some of the high moral ground from which we normally try to operate. This does not mean that we must avoid killing innocents at all costs. Only true pacifists can hold to such a position. The rest of us all condone the killing of bystanders as an inevitable concomitant of war, of fighting crime and of self defense. But we do view the killing of innocents as regrettable and to be minimized, even if the ends justify it in some instances.
The issue in this instance is that the slim probability that our killing would stop Libyan-supported terrorism did not warrant the inevitable loss to our moral stature.
Still another factor that must be considered is that our chief executive has, in my opinion, broken faith with the public on the question of assassination. Ronald Reagan has signed a public executive order on intelligence that prohibits any member of our government from participating in assassination. The public has good reason to expect that its government has eschewed assassination. Although the bombing of Qaddafi's residence may be technically outside the definition of assassination, there is little question that is what we intended. This is an issue that strikes home to me particularly, because I continually find there is great skepticism in the public mind that the CIA has actually renounced assassination. The president's blatant skirting of his own order will only make the public more skeptical that its government is treating with it forthrightly.
Finally, because we were so visceral and impetuous, our European allies must have real qualms about our leadership on terrorism. That's unfortunate because one of the key elements for us in combatting terrorism is international cooperation. Almost all of the terrorism directed against Americans has been on other people's soil. We need their help because we simply cannot operate on other people's territory in the ways the Europeans have found important to curbing terrorists: intensified intelligence and police operations that keep hard-core terrorists on the run and dry up their external support.
If we are going to defeat international terrorism -- not just Qaddafi but the broader sweep -- we will need an analogous multinational program that will put international pressures on the movement of individual terrorists and on their bases of support in our societies. The willingness of our allies to agree at the Tokyo summit to steps in these directions is encouraging. The bombing may well have focused their attention. It will take a more positive and persuasive U.S. leadership, though, to keep the program negotiated at Tokyo on track and to expand it to the point where it will be truly effective.
Realistically, well before any such program can have much effect, we are likely to face a new decision on retaliation against Libya. We should prepare for that by thinking through the choices in advance. There are two alternatives to bombing. One is to send in the Marines and change the government. That's a big commitment, but it's making use our military in a way that has a reasonable chance of succeeding. The other is to mine the harbors of Libya and cut off its commerce by sea. That, too, could be very effective if we are patient. Surely this should be our next step if we are impelled to employ force against Qadaffi again. Even though it would annoy our allies, I believe they would be less annoyed than with more bombing.
Whatever we do next in Libya, we need to be more deliberate than to rush into military action against terrorism again simply because there seems to be nothing else we can do. Of course we are frustrated, but while the bombing may suppress that frustration for a while, it is not likely to suppress Qaddafi or other Arabs bent on terrorism against us. Only when we truly analyze which alternatives promise the best payoffs will we begin moving towards a long-run solution to terrorism. And only then will we deserve the respect that we'll need to lead the responsible nations of the world in a coordinated campaign to suppress this latest scourge against mankind.