In the wake of the latest acts of terrorism resulting in American deaths -- the bomb that exploded on the TWA plane above the Mediterranean and the blast that shattered the West Berlin discotheque -- the Reagan administration has reacted in familiar fashion. It has loudly accused Libya's Muammar Qaddafi of sponsoring these newest outrages.
"The footprints are there" of Libya's involvement, Reagan spokesmen are quoted as saying on TV and in the press. The administration is said to have well-founded "suspicions" about who committed the crimes. Officials report having proof of Qaddafi's "master plan for terrorism." They allege that these two latest incidents of terrorism form "part of a pattern."
Perhaps so, but equally part of the pattern is the way this administration responds to the issue of terrorism and to Qaddafi.
Once again, the administration has been huffing and puffing publicly about how it will blow down Qaddafi and put an end to international terrorism. As usual, its official rhetoric is superheated and hyperbolic, its tone loud and threatening, its posture one of rushing to the nearest TV camera and talk-show host to pop off about Qaddafi and Libya.
This is not a policy. This is bluster.
The impression created by such tough talk is that the administration is spoiling for a fight. Quite possibly that is the official intent. Perhaps all of the rhetoric and accusations are a means of preparing the American public for further military action against Qaddafi. If so, recent Sixth Fleet maneuvers and strikes in the Gulf of Sidra will have been a prelude to the main event.
There are several problems with this approach.
First, there's no reason to think that employing conventional military force will stop terrorism. Just the reverse may be true: Dispatching the fleet with all of its awesome power may have ensured further acts of terrorism.
Second, there's no evidence that the administration's years of verbal assaults on Qaddafi have deterred him or diminished his standing in the Arab world. Again, the opposite may well have resulted: Qaddafi relishes his role as David to America's Goliath. The more attention paid to him publicly, the more likely he is to be viewed as a hero by Arab masses. Even his death at American hands could become a form of victory. The true fanatic glories in being portrayed as martyr to a cause.
Third, there's nothing to demonstrate that the administration's penchant for military solutions to long-standing international problems such as Central America, Lebanon and Libya has won support among its allies or in the court of world opinion. On the contrary, its saber-rattling has stirred only greater international controversy and made more difficult the prospect of a concerted front.
Fourth, there's no reason to believe that the administration's fascination with military solutions has improved long-term prospects for a more stable Middle East and thus an end to terrorism. Terrorism springs from many deeply complicated cultural, religious, economic and historic forces. If anything, the underlying attitudes that produce it have hardened there in recent years. Further military action will aggravate the situation.
Fifth, there's no reason to expect that terrorism will cease if the United States launches new attacks against Libya and even succeeds in eliminating all known terrorist bases there. By focusing public attention almost exclusively on Libya and Qaddafi, the administration has made it seem that Libya is the source of all terrorist woes. It is not.
None of this means that the United States must sit idly and allow terrorism to go unpunished. Overwhelming public sentiment for retaliation exists. Military action may well be required, and it will be supported. But, as always, military action means the failure of diplomacy.
In this, as in so many other areas, the administration would be wise to follow the example of the century's greatest Republican president. It ought to speak softly, carry a big stick and, when necessary, be prepared to use it. But as Theodore Roosevelt, the Nobel peace prize winner, also demonstrated, a statesman's greatest acts come from ending wars, not starting them.