THE most sought-after document in the capital today is the "military options list" presented to President Clinton after the FBI and CIA determined that the government of Iraq had tried to assassinate a former U.S. president.
What were the Clinton choices after he saw the solid evidence that Saddam had tried to exact vengeance for his Desert Storm defeat? Forget the unrealistic extremes of doing nothing, or of sending a half-million men back to the Middle East to finish George Bush's half-done job.
The real decision was this: Does our commander in chief respond by using our air power to seriously damage Saddam's war machine and economic base -- setting back all hopes of recovery by years -- and driving home the lesson to state terrorists from Baghdad to Tehran to Khartoum that American retaliation will be swift and fierce?
Or does he respond by making a solemn speech that hypes a pinprick action?
Mr. Clinton chose from among the weakest military options.
He could have ordered air strikes on the suspected new missile factories, chemical plants and nuclear facilities that Saddam is refusing to let U.N. inspectors see, and crippled the air defenses that now illuminate our patrollers in the no-fly zone.
He could have directed U.S. bombers located in Turkey to devastate Saddam's Republican Guard, source of his dictatorial power, now lined up in tanks and armored vehicles threatening the Kurds and Shiites.
He could have turned out the lights in Iraq and set back its oil-production capacity, which -- combined with a reduction of his Republican Guard and the arming of the anti-Saddam forces in the north -- could endanger the regime itself.
Not one of these reactions required U.N. approval; the murder plot was against a U.S. president. But Mr. Clinton chose the course that Stewart Alsop used to label "phony-tough": He threw a score of missiles at a building after its officials had left for the day.
This restraint was promptly embraced by doves: Rep. Pat
Schroeder and Rep. Lee Hamilton hailed the risk-free demonstration of technology as "proportionate," as if the life of a U.S. president is worth one medium-sized office building.
But when one head of state tries to murder another, that is an act of war. If clear evidence had shown that Fidel Castro ordered the killing of President Kennedy, President Johnson would surely have used military force to depose the regime in Havana. (Target Bush's reaction to the anemic Clinton response was to say he supported our troops -- which, translated, means thanks a bunch.)
The National Security Council recommendation was camera-driven, not mission-driven. Mr. Clinton's aides were more concerned with pictures of civilian casualties than with making an impact on the power reality in Iraq and the region. "We didn't want the story the next day to be a parade of dead secretaries," a triumphant administration spokesman told me.
While the White House concentrated on how any military response would play on television screens, nobody put our invitation to respond unilaterally into a strategic context.
Saddam (and Syria's Assad) are sponsoring their terrorist Kurdish faction's assault on Turks in Europe and in Turkey, fostering tension in Germany among Turkish and Kurdish guest workers, keeping Turkey in turmoil.
Saddam has a plan and Mr. Clinton does not. This would have been the moment for the U.S. to crack back creatively.
While our air force pounded Saddam's elite guard from bases in Turkey, our diplomats should have been forging an alliance of the new government in Ankara with the great majority of responsible Kurds to force out Saddam.
Maybe that's too complicated for the new team; maybe it thinks its pitiful wrist-slap will be taken for serious resolve; or maybe it thinks we can deal with state-sponsored terrorists by sending them a "proportionate" message rather than teaching them an unforgettable lesson.
If our anti-terrorist policy is to send messages circumscribed by what is to appear on screen, then Saddam and similar potentates will get the feeble Clinton message all too well:
There is little risk in trying to assassinate a U.S. president or knock out a U.S. city.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.