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Knowing Clinton, one is tempted to say that if Osama bin Laden thought last week was bad, wait till the Starr report comes out. Might be a good time for bin Laden to go on vacation.

Temptation aside, however, it is clear that bombing bin Laden was no "Wag the Dog." Defense Secretary William Cohen and Gen. Hugh Shelton would never lend themselves to an air raid whose purpose was to deflect attention from a domestic scandal.

Nonetheless, there was an extrinsic force driving the Afghan and Sudanese bombings. It was not the Lewinsky affair, but the collapse of Iraq policy. It wasn't Monica wagging the dog, but Saddam. The air raid served to compensate for -- and deflect attention from -- the total surrender of the Clinton administration in the face of Saddam's determination to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction.

On the very same day the cruise missiles went out, the United States was forced to support a humiliating Security Council statement that pitiably called Saddam's expulsion of U.N. inspectors "totally unacceptable," while pointedly dropping previous warnings of "severest consequences" if Saddam did not reverse himself. Having announced to the world that he would no longer send bombers out after Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Clinton sent missiles out after bin Laden.

Of course, the bin Laden raid is fully justified on its own terms. When American embassies are attacked by a terrorist group openly declaring war on the United States, retaliation is to be expected. But to understand why this administration, so inert in the face of terrorism for six years, should suddenly adopt a policy of pre-emption and retaliation one must view the larger picture.

It is this: For six years, this administration has pursued a foreign policy of romantic internationalism, trusting American security to treaties whose purpose is to abolish all the nastiness of the world -- chemical weapons, nuclear tests, global warming -- with the stroke of a pen.

Its only activism has been the injection of American force into two areas posing no threat whatsoever to the United States (Bosnia and Haiti) and deepening our involvement in a third sideshow (Somalia). All the while, it abjured any significant use of force against those posing real and deadly threats to the United States: North Korea, Iraq, Iran and until last week, terrorists.

Consider North Korea. In 1994, North Korea broke the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and embarked on nuke building. How did Clinton react? By agreeing to supply North Korea indefinitely with free oil while the United States and allies build for it two brand-new (ostensibly safer) $5 billion nuclear reactors in return for a promise to freeze its weapons program.

Now it turns out that while taking this gigantic bribe, North Korea was building a huge nuclear facility inside a mountain. The administration, inert and dismayed by such ungentlemanliness, refuses to call this a violation of the agreement. Why? Because the concrete has not yet been poured!

Add now Iraq. In a televised address to the nation in February, Clinton starkly declared what was at stake if Saddam were allowed to build his weapons of mass destruction: "If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity."

That was just six months ago. And now? The speech is retracted; the policy of forcing inspections, dead. With America withdrawn, Saddam can now build his chemical, biological and nuclear arsenal unmolested.

In the face of these retreats, Clinton could not remain motionless after the bombing of two American embassies without totally forfeiting what little international credibility he had left. In fact, the administration itself inadvertently made the connection to Iraq when it justified the attack on the Sudanese factory with the claim that senior Iraqi scientists were helping to make VX there.

Yet even a proxy attack can be useful if it signals a turning point in Clinton foreign policy, a decision to no longer permit the United States to be the doormat of tyrants. More likely, however, the bin Laden raid will turn out to be a spasm, a solitary and desperate attempt to divert attention from the foreign policy of least resistance and failure.

Washington Post Writers Group

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