Now that the Reagan administration has proved that scapegoating (Jimmy Carter, a sluggish bureaucracy, the difficulty of defending against a kamikaze terrorist) hasn't really set the American public's mind at ease, it is falling back on a familiar pacifier: throw money at the problem of terrorism -- $366 million to be exact.
Not to be outdone on a politically tender issue, Congress has come up with the money faster than even the administration thinks it can spend it for all sorts of new security gadgets, high-tech satellite systems and computers for instant intelligence collection, and a new "threat-analysis" team to increase the odds of early warning.
Leaving aside what this says about the high state of readiness already claimed by the administration even after the latest terrorist hit on the new American Embassy in Lebanon, it says even more about a state of mind that is not, in fairness, peculiar to the Reagan administration. I have in mind the uniquely American fancy that there are no problems too hard for the U.S. government to fix.
You can argue that this is what made America what it is today, for better or (as Ronald Reagan has usually been the first to argue) for worse. But to the extent that the new counterterrorism package carries with it some promise of stamping out or even significantly damping down the growing, global terrorist scourge, it is no less cruel a hoax than the notion that clever intelligence penetration of terrorist groups or pinpoint retaliatory strikes can do the job.
Terrorist experts, as distinct from political leaders, tend to provide more reassurance by offering less. The ones I have listened to lately pretty much agree that there are 1)a lot of things that can be done to reduce the terrorist risk; 2)some things you can do to make it worse, and 3)nothing you can do to eliminate it.
Bureaucratic sprawl -- compounded by alternating swings from near-hysteria to apathy after each incident -- is part of the problem. The point was nicely made by the State Department's witness list at a recent briefing for the House Foreign Affairs Committee: undersecretary for management; assistant secretary for administration; deputy assistant secretary for security; deputy assistant secretary for foreign buildings; the department's comptroller; the senior deputy for counterterrorism in the department's office for counterterrorism and emergency planning.
But nobody doubts a determined administration could force a shortcut through the bureaucratic maze. The real question is how to get to the source. After the bombing of the U.S. Marine compound, Reagan promised retribution. Later he was to explain lamely in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that by the time the United States was beginning to be confident it had found the right target and could hit it without killing innocent civilians, "someone else" (presumably the Israelis or the French) who "evidently knew more than we did or was not as careful as we were . . . took that target out before we could get to it."
Right now administration officials are letting it be known that they think they have fingered a specific organization based in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as responsible not only for last month's embassy bombing but perhaps the attack on the old U.S. Embassy and the Marine compound as well. But the group reportedly does not offer an easy, isolated target that would not risk killing the wrong people and provoking a wave of terrorism against whatever American "presence" -- wherever.
That grim inhibition is echoed by a leading private authority on terrorism, Robert H. Kupperman, senior associate of the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies. A bungled reprisal or preemptive strike would not only risk terrorist retaliation in the region, Kupperman argues, but in the United States as well. It gets grimmer: radiological or chemical weapons, attacks on power systems, creating environmental hazards -- "all are within the capacity of nation states that sponsor terrorism," he warns, as "car bombs go out of vogue."
Kupperman has some simple suggestions for tightening security around embassies: sand-filled dump trucks, however unsightly; pop-up barriers; automatic "trapdoor" pits; dogs trained to sniff out explosives. For the rest, he says, it's a matter of approach. While guaranteeing nothing that would be foolproof, he argues that "We're not doing steady planning. . . . We're reacting. . . . We're not doing our job."
At the new U.S. Embassy in Beirut last month, says Kupperman, "quite simply, we were unprepared." On paper, anyway, the new money appropriated by Congress promises a higher level of preparedness. The question remains whether it will be accompanied by the right approach: the sustained effort from the highest level that would make unavoidable terrorist attacks at least a little easier to understand, if not accept.