At about the same time, the administration embarked on secret maneuvers to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held by shadowy groups in Lebanon. Like Carter, Reagan found it impossible not to respond to the emotional dilemma created by hostage seizures. Then, to get around congressional prohibitions, some officials used the profits thus acquired to support the anti-communist Contras of Nicaragua. In the middle of what turned out to be an embarrassing muddle, the administration retaliated against Libya for its involvement in the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen. The raid could be seen as compensation for having shown "weakness" in negotiating with Iran or as a return to the original strategy of zero tolerance for terrorism. Certainly some administration figures such as Oliver North had been looking for a smoking gun since at least 1984. Any satisfaction felt at having finally returned to principle was short-lived. In 1988, Libya retaliated with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
President Bill Clinton was also forced onto a reactive footing by terrorism. In 1993, the new administration was not in the least eager to take on terrorism as a major issue. The Cold War was over, and the Middle East seemed remade in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The White House rejected what was thought of as the "clash of civilizations" approach favored by Reagan. The president's public speeches downplayed terrorism as but one of a series of modern transnational or "border-crossing" threats, along with drug trafficking, global organized crime, epidemics of disease, and environmental disasters. These were problems of the global commons, not existential threats to U.S. national security. The strategy was to be a modest approach of putting terrorism in perspective, a sort of return to normalcy in foreign policy.
But immediately, in February 1993, the bombing of the World Trade Center opened an era of terrorism that came bewilderingly from all ideological directions -- the early progenitors of the jihadi movement, right-wing Americans, Iraq, Iran, and finally in 1998 al Qaeda fully formed. Although the United States wasn't the target, the use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway by an apocalyptic sect set off alarms about terrorist "weapons of mass destruction," worries that had already been sparked by the reality of Russian "loose nukes." An administration that did not want to make terrorism an issue found it impossible to escape. Clinton used force twice in responding to terrorism, once against Iraq and again in 1998 when the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed. This was far from what the administration intended when it took office. The United States simply could not respond to terrorism in the same way that it responded to crises caused by drugs, crime, disease, and natural disasters.
Why does terrorism have this disruptive effect? Is it the nature of terrorism itself to frighten, shock, and outrage its audiences, or is it the politicization of the issue in American domestic politics, or is it a combination of the two? In general, terrorism is not as deadly as many other life-threatening phenomena, so it is not a question of magnitude of physical harm but of emotional effects on audiences. It is hard to develop and even harder to maintain a consistent, logical counterterrorism policy, one that is not just a sequence of ad hoc responses to discrete events. Presidents who did not want to exaggerate or perhaps even recognize the threat of terrorism wound up having to confront the issue, and presidents who placed terrorism high on the agenda still struggled to maintain control of policy. A challenge for the next four years will be to find a reasonable long-term strategy to deal with terrorism, a threat that has not disappeared despite over a decade of military responses.