Religious, nationalist terrorism in the Middle East - which lies behind this week's bomb attacks in Kuwait - is a hard phenomenon for the United States to deal with. Suicide truck-bomb missions defy conventional precautions. Responsibility is difficult to fix. Retaliation by conventional force might momentarily assuage the anguish and frustration of the victimized super power or its client, but retaliation only feeds the fanaticism of the attackers and draws the retaliator into the eye-for-an-eye morass which originally bred the attackers' hatred and mission.
The US, despite warnings, was caught off guard when its embassy staff in Tehran was seized four years ago. The Carter administration eventually tried a rescue mission which was aborted in a desert mishap. Only when Carter's political cycle had run its course were the US personnel released, on Mr. Reagan's Inauguration Day, in a gesture intended to humiliate Carter and possibly signal an opportunity for a new relationship under Mr. Reagan.
Then came this past April's US Embassy bombing in Beirut, October's truck-bomb attack on US and French troop positions in Beirut, and now bomb attacks on US and French sites in Kuwait, including the two nations' embassies.
The pace of the attacks has picked up. Their scope has expanded from the base of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, Tehran, to embrace Lebanon, which is not of great strategic interest to the US, and Kuwait, which sits in the great Persian Gulf oil field and thus is of great strategic importance to the West. The terrorist alert reaches even to the White House, where concrete barriers are now in place and the presence of surface-to-air missiles is openly discussed.
What can the US do?
Obviously, security measures at all embassies or other potential targets must be stepped up. While quarantine behind concrete barriers goes against the ideal of open embassy access, there can be no excuse for needlessly sacrificing the lives of Americans abroad or of the nationals who work in US mission compounds.
Retaliation and the other stock responses of Western culture, again, might be designed more for domestic consumption than impact abroad. The desire to pressure the Syrians and the Iranians into curbing the Islamic fanatics will get a high priority in the Reagan administration.
But does the answer lie more in the larger design of US policy in the Middle East? Is the confrontationalist tendency of the Reagan administration leading the Syrians, and the Soviets, to tacitly approve disruptive acts of violence by Middle East sects - or at least provide no incentive to restrain them? Has the reaffirmation of US security links with Israel further identified the US as a partisan in the regional disputes and therefore as much part of the problem as the solution? Has joining the US in the Lebanon peacekeeping force targeted the other peacekeepers, particularly the French but also Britain and Italy, for retaliation?
As the 1984 American election campaign approaches, has Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini embarked on a year-long effort to humiliate the Reagan administration with a master plan of disruption by Muslim militants from the 20 or more Islamic nations? With Carter, the Ayatollah used Western television resources to underscore the impotence of Western arms, when compunctions exist about using them, in the face of nationalist-religious fervor.
These are grave considerations. They suggest that the Reagan administration's primary rationale for international trouble, Soviet expansionism, is an inadequate basis for formulating Middle East strategy. Some in the White House concede the administration lacks an overall conceptual framework for the Middle East. What Americans do not understand, such as what is energizing the Islamic movement, they tend to discount.
We are not sure just what President Reagan had in mind when he warned Monday, ''We have tried to turn our swords into plowshares, hoping others would follow. Well, our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.'' He couldn't have been thinking of terrorism, which appears only to be provoked by such boasts. US strength resides in moral, not chiefly military might. An aggressive confrontationalist posture in the Middle East might lead only to more trouble.