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Right Thing, Odd Time

Many Americans have the nagging suspicion that the timing of last week's strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan was connected with President Clinton's political problems at home. Politically, the action was about as propitious for Mr. Clinton as you could imagine. Monday he was on national television, a shaken miscreant in a sordid sex scandal. Less than three days later, he was on national television again, now the commander in chief in command, dispatching forces against America's foes - a move that traditionally rallies public and Congress behind the president.

But whatever our suspicions, international terrorism is not an issue on which we can second-guess the president. Nor, in our ignorance, can we dismiss the intelligence that national security adviser Sandy Berger says the United States had about the operations of Osama bin Laden, the shadowy Saudi-born Islamic militant who is presumed by the White House to have played a key role in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

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The Central Intelligence Agency has been criticized in recent years for its reliance on spy satellites rather than "humint," intelligence from human agents who can extract information invisible to the satellites' eyes. But Mr. Berger says the White House was not relying on satellite technology alone. The CIA had considerable experience in Afghanistan during the uprising against Soviet occupation and may still have agents in place there. Sudan is a much more difficult country for the CIA to operate in. In both countries, we can presume that the American intelligence community used its sophisticated technology to intercept the communications of anti-American plotters.

Although Mr. bin Laden was ejected from Sudan at American behest and set up operations in Afghanistan, Sudanese refugees in the US from the brutal ruling regime in Sudan are familiar with his activities, which extend throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Bosnia, as well as his continuing ties with the Sudanese government. In return for his favors, the Sudanese government is reputed to have given bin Laden a monopoly on Sudan's gum arabic crop, which is sold on the international market to the US and other countries for use in medicines and candy.

Clinton says he is getting tougher with international terrorists, and that is welcome news. The new policy may be to strike back Israeli-style at those countries that err in supporting terrorist acts. But in focusing on Sudan and Afghanistan, he selected countries with little capacity to respond militarily. There is a long and more menacing list of countries that either conduct terrorism or harbor those who practice it. North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Iraq come first to mind. These are tougher customers. Will Clinton be as forceful in confronting them?

Perhaps inhibited by his political problems at home, Clinton has seemed unwilling to challenge Saddam Hussein's latest obstruction of United Nations inspectors attempting to search for weapons of mass destruction. This is symbolic of the vacillation and indecisiveness that has sometimes characterized his foreign policy. Clinton dithered for three years over Bosnia before becoming involved. There was similar initial lack of resolve in Haiti. Now, with thousands of refugees in Kosovo - and untold numbers slaughtered by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic - the administration wrings its hands on the sidelines. Meanwhile the administration has made no progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute at the heart of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.

If our times have taught us anything, it's that tyrants are best confronted early. Diplomacy is always better than war. But it's meaningless unless underpinned by force and the resolve to use it in a righteous cause. Lobbing missiles from the sea at a couple of third-world nations is but the first shot in a war that will put Clinton's mettle to severe test.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor who has also served as US assistant secretary of state and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.

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