The habit of delivering a rapid and violent response rather than talking is very American--thus the latest missile attacks. Rarely has a major power been so quick on the trigger. The bombings of Libya and Lebanon are recent examples. None of these served as a deterrent to future terrorists or hostage takers. Diplomacy does better. In Iran, the site of the largest hostage taking, military action failed but patient negotiations succeeded. The hostages came safely home and America extracted hefty financial penalties from Iran.
Military strikes rarely hit the intended targets but do cause what Pentagon euphemism describes as "collateral damage." US airstrikes aimed at Muammar el-Qaddafi killed his 3-year-old daughter instead. An assault directed at Saddam Hussein killed an innocent woman, Leila al-Attar. As for the latest missile strike, on Osama bin Laden, only India can feel good. Not one of his men was hit; the dead Pakistanis or Afghans were mostly those who were training for warfare in Kashmir, where Pakistan supports an anti-India insurgency. Evidence is mounting, too, that the attack on the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum may have been a mistake. If true, this will not be the first instance of faulty intelligence shaping policy.
The missile strikes are likely to augment anti-American terrorist acts, as the fundamentalist groups whose members were mistakenly killed have sworn revenge.
The realization that military strikes are ineffective and embarrassing has led some US policy-makers and legislators to advocate lifting the 1976 ban on political assassination abroad. Since public opinion does not favor it, and the White House has ways to get around the ban, it may not be lifted. If it is, it will be open season on leaders of all sides.
The Secretary of State declares that the missile strikes were the start of a "long-term battle against terrorists. …