Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who held the No. 3 job in the State Department before retiring last year, declined to prescribe for the recent hostage episode while it was unsettled. But in frequent TV appearances, he was quite clear "on the general question" of what policy should be: "The U.S. government must announce that next time it will retaliate -- time, place and target of our choosing."

Now that fits nicely with what President Reagan seemed to be saying in his anti-terrorism tirade before the American Bar Association this week. But Syria was conspiciously absent from his "confederation of terrorist states" (Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba and Nicaragua). Why? Because Syria may yet have a role to play in the case of the remaining seven American hostages in Lebanon. So the hard question remains: Is it credible to lay down in advance a hypothetical threat of "unilateral" U.S. action to deny sanctuary in "terrorist" states? Not if the administration's past performance is any test.

What the record says is that while there may well be any number of useful things you can do to reduce the risk, to tighten security, to improve intelligence and in the process even nip terrorist plots in the bud, the one thing you cannot do is craft a convincing public doctrine of retaliation for strict application in a future case.

One week into his first term, Reagan laid down a line oft-quoted in recent weeks. "Swift and effective retribution" were the operative words. When nothing of the sort materialized after the bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut in 1983, the administration went back to the drawing board and came up with what sounded at the time like a comprehensive contingency plan. There had been a National Security Council "decision directive" signed by the presidentwas a "decision in principle" to use force if necessary. The responsible policy-makers would work out the details.

The administration seemed to be doing precisely what Eagleburger now says must be done. Instead, all we got were occasional reports of internal dissension reflected in the sharply conflicting perceptions offered publicly by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz. By the time the administration was caught up in a real-life crisis, the debate over "whether" to retaliate as a matter of principle still came down as a matter of practice to a debate over "when" and "how."

The problem is that the case is too hard: that there is no way to formulate a contingency plan -- and still less to promulgate it publicly -- that is going to fit every terrorist situation that comes along.

A lot of people shared The Wall Street Journal's view that terrorism "works and it carries no costs. There is logically only on way to change this deadly equation: retaliate." On the fifth day of the hijacking, The Journal was ready to consider, for starters, U.S. air strikes against Syrian military positions in Lebanon. At about this time, presumably, the administration was in fact considering ways to get Syria's President Hafez Assad to lend a helping diplomatic hand.

Assad is not easily chastened; he works in disagreeable ways. If the United States had begun to shoot up his troops, it seems unlikely he would have wound up accepting a personal thank-you call from Reagan for his role in arranging the hostage release or that the hostages would have celebrated the Fourth of July in the United States. Frankly, I prefer the way it all turned out.