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OTHER COMMENTARY / EXCERPTS : Appeasement Will Not Quell Terrorists

January 09, 1986|PHILIP GEYELIN

Only an Administration in a chronic state of confusion about how to counter terrorism could have done as much in so short a time to make a bad matter worse. It built up the villain in the eyes of the audience that most concerns him, and made the good guys look impotent and irresolute.

The point has only marginally to do with the measures that President Reagan finally adopted. If nothing else, they constitute a statement of protest. If the 1,500 or so American citizens living in Libya obey the President's order to come home (or defy it at their own risk), the threat of a hostage crisis would be relieved. That would remove one, but by no means all, of the arguments against a military strike in some future terrorist showdown with Libya.

But it would not remove the real problem, which has to do with the way the measures were taken: the noisy, disorderly prelude, the expectations raised of some dramatic, decisive military action--and then dashed. The inevitable anti-climax can only be compounded by the necessary reliance on collective economic and diplomatic ganging up on Libya, without much effort to secure agreement in advance and with ample evidence that the most crucial collaborators don't want to collaborate.

The British, West Germans, French and Italians all value their commercial connections with Libya, either as importers of Libyan oil or as suppliers of industrial goods. They have far larger numbers of their nationals residing in Libya. They are not spoiling for a fight with Moammar Kadafi in anything like the way that Reagan seems to be. This is not because they don't appreciate the danger, but because they do--having had to cope for years with terrorist outbreaks on a scale unknown in the United States.

The Europeans know that sanctions don't work. And their first-hand experience with terrorism does not encourage them to go out of their way to provoke more of the same. They would prefer to deal quietly with the problem by means that the Reagan Administration itself espouses: tighter security, better intelligence and more effective international pooling of these sorts of sub-rosa efforts, with minimum publicity-seeking.

Nobody wants to appear indifferent to the scourge of terrorism. But there are cruel limits on what can be done about it, and strict limits, as well, on what can be said about the things that can be done. This argues against public threats that may prove empty and public promises that cannot be fulfilled. It argues for putting up or shutting up.

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