THE 1980S BEGAN with a new administration bringing home hostage victims of terrorism in the Middle East, and a presidental vow of "swift and effective retribution" against those who violated "the rules of international behavior." We spent most of the rest of the decade bringing bodies home, and burying careers. By the close of the Reagan administration, terrorism had become the Tar-Baby of our Middle East policy. Every time we whacked it, we got stuck worse.

In the beginning, the use of terrorism against us was not part of a grand strategy but rather the reaction to a series of provocative mistakes: taking sides in the battles between Muslim militias and Christian forces in Lebanon, for example. Shortly, however, terrorist planners discovered how effective that "weapon" could be against U.S. forces and U.S. political opinion.

Terrorism is a wild card in the current confrontation. Last week, President Bush, concerned about "new links" between Iraq and international terrorist groups, warned Baghdad that it faced serious consequences should U.S. interests be the targets of Iraqi-sponsored terrorism.

But the deck is stacked heavily against us. The barracks bravado accompanying the U.S. deployment in the Middle East may obscure, but cannot alter, the reality of our own vulnerabilities -- military and civilian alike -- in the Persian Gulf, in Africa, on the Mediterranean littoral and in Europe.

Our military forces in Saudi Arabia are vulnerable first because they are available in increasing abundance. To the terrorist planner, large forces don't represent greater danger: They represent fatter targets, higher casualties and strategic opportunities. In October 1983, a single well-placed truck bomb blew the military might of the United States straight out of Lebanon.

We are vulnerable in the Middle East because our purpose is unclear. "Cheap Gasoline" is not a slogan likely to adorn anyone's battle flag. Dependence is hardly a proper war aim for a nation whose founders died to give us independence.

If Americans are given no more compelling rationale for our actions in the Gulf today than was given for our actions in Lebanon eight years ago -- and they have not -- then terrorist planners will want to see if political support for our present posture can run as far on pain as it has on rhetoric. We are sated with rhetoric. And they know how to inflict pain.

We are vulnerable because we can't keep track of our enemies. Our gift for acquiring enemies in the Middle East is as remarkable as our refusal to take them seriously.

Surveillance of U.S. troop concentrations -- it is unclear by whom -- prompted us to warn Iraq against the use of terrorism before Bush's statement last week. This is pointless prudence at best. Iraq is only one possible source of terrorist attack against our forces in the Gulf, and among the least likely such sources. With time on his side, Saddam Hussein has no interest in offering the United States a justification for attacking him. But others have a very large interest in promoting an attack on Baghdad by the United States. A number of them have the means at their disposal to create a provocation in the service of that objective.

Among these nations are Libya, Iran and Syria. Yet Syria, to take a bizarre case in point, has kindly consented to send its troops to join our own in the Saudi desert. Syrian proximity to U.S. forces in the past has been a contributing factor in the deaths of a number of those forces. But that's all water under the bridge now; it just goes to show that our policy of not fussing at Hafez Assad over such matters as Syria's alleged role in the 1988 bombing of an American civil aircraft, and the resulting murders of 270 people, was right all along.

Will a terrorist attack against our forces be met with judicious admonitions that we must wait until the evidence is in and sifted, and the smoking gun produced, before we act? Or will the pressure to raid Baghdad be irresistible? We have put our troops at the mercy of events over which we have no control.

We are vulnerable because Saudi Arabia is not a war zone, and we are prohibited from behaving as though it is. U.S. forces are trying to be good guests, to adapt to Saudi sensibilities. They refrain from firing exercises in the desert lest the nearby bedouin and their livestock be hurt or inconvenienced. In time, if there is time, acclimatization will lead to complacency, and complaceny will lead to carelessness. From there it is a short step to the next truck bomb (or even a camel bomb -- Middle Eastern terrorists are both creative and resourceful).

Yet, however attractive the option from the perspective of Baghdad, Damascus, Tripoli, Tehran and elsewhere, a sanctioned terrorist attack on U.S. military forces in the constricted region of the Gulf would still involve some risk of the action being traced to its source.

This risk is greatly reduced in the case of attacks on civilian targets: airlines, airports, commercial establishments and tourists. An attack outside the Gulf region, say in Europe, would be claimed by and attributed to a host of U.S. adversaries, thus enhancing the deniability of all. Middle Eastern terrorism values anonymity and dedicates its deeds to the cause for which they are carried out. This "selflessness" complicates the process of discovering who made the mess. In these sheltering ambiguities, Saddam Hussein will be safer in employing the resources at his disposal, should he choose to do it.

On the field of terror, Saddam -- if he chooses to sponsor terrorist acts after all -- has world-class resources.

These include Abu Ibryhim, who has the distinction of being the world's leading innovator of bombs for the destruction of aircraft. At least three have turned up on U.S. planes. We found the first known sample of his handicraft in a small European country with a highly efficient police force. The police were directed to the bomb over the phone, complaining all the while about "Americans who overreact to everything," and failed to find the thing. When they called to complain about being sent on a wild goose chase, they were sent back for another look. They found the bomb the second time around and were awed: Baghdad's master bomb builder had ushered in a new era in terrorism.

The "air" in bombing an airplane rests in hiding the identity of the perpetrator. The next American aircraft that blows up could be the work of Abu Ibryhim. Or it could be the work of someone working for Ahmed Jabril in Syria.

Abu al-Abbas is in Iraq. He masterminded the taking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, which included the murder of passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Abbas was caught when his escape plane was forced down in Italy by U.S. carrier pilots. The Italians set him free. When Klinghoffer's body washed ashore in Syria, Abbas grinningly opined the wheelchair-bound victim had "taken a swim."

More recently, Abbas attempted to land terrorists on the Israeli coast. The terrorists died, but the operation was a success for rejectionists who oppose any attempt at a peaceful solution to the war against Israel: Yasser Arafat's refusal to condemn the action led to the end of talks between the U.S. and the PLO -- and another feather in Abu al-Abbas' kaffiyah.

Abu Nidal has gone to Iraq from Libya. The group is unusual in that its skills and range of activities are so broad. Its more notable actions, chiefly in Europe, have included hijackings, bombings and shooting up air terminals and synagogues.

This is not Abu Nidal's first sojourn in Iraq. One of his earlier stays began at almost exactly the same time -- March, 1982 -- that the U.S. State Department removed Iraq from the punitive list of states sponsoring terrorism. (Note also that during the years Saddam Hussein was enjoying the State Department's approval, Abu Ibryhim was putting bombs on American airplanes.) Iraq was put back on the list earlier this month.

While Iraq may or may not be the source of whatever terrorist torment is next visited on the innocent, the point to be gained here is that many of Middle Eastern terrorism's leading lights -- those not in Syria -- are at its disposal.

The hapless kingdom of Jordan represents a potential for the opening of yet another terrorist front. We are wroth with Jordan at present and, intentionally or not, President Bush has left the impression that the United States is at best indifferent to King Hussein's viability.

But the implosion of Jordan -- a distinct possibility -- would create a vacuum similar to that in Lebanon. It would draw in conflicting states, remove the buffer between Israel and Iraq, extend the range of the threat on the Saudi's permeable northern border and provide a host carcass for the nurturing of additional terrorist groups and operations.

Finally, we render ourselves vulnerable to terrorism by a habit of mind that imagines Middle East despots to be negligible adversaries (Gadhafi is "crazy"; Khomeini was "senile").

Saddam Hussein is vicious, but he has done nothing in the past two months to suggest he is stupid or crazy. Yet adherents of this school are smugly confident that, blinded by greed and megalomania, Saddam Hussein made a grave miscalculation in attacking Kuwait. If so, it was an error rooted in serendipity.

It enlisted our aid in reinforcing that malevolent perception of the West which is mother's milk to resurgent Arab nationalism.

It succeeded in hanging an American army around the Saudi neck, thus placing in perpetual jeopardy an alleged object of our intervention.

It elevated Saddam Hussein from regional thug to national redeemer. The mirror image of Bush's achievement in assembling an international coalition of the industrialized democracies against Saddam Hussein is Saddam Hussein's achievement in forcing the industrialized democracies, finally, to take the Arab world seriously.

Thus, if Saddam Hussein were destroyed tomorrow, the pernicious effects of his achievement would continue to resonate for a long time to come.

There is a grim symmetry to our renewed flirtation with Middle Eastern terrorism. In 1980, we had illusions. In 1990, we are no longer entitled to them, considering the price so many of our fellow citizens paid to make us wiser.

Noel Koch was the Pentagon's head of counterterrorism from 1981 until 1986. He is now president of International Security Management, Inc.