U.S. policy on terrorism has been largely driven by events. Indeed, policy is rarely created in the abstract. It responds to events that create a requirement to do something. Policy is reactive, an accumulation of statements and actions that then become precedents. And it is constantly evolving. Ask some official to explain the reasoning behind a certain policy and, if he knows his history well enough, he will cite the exact incident that prompted the reaction. This is especially true of a diverse, multifaceted phenomenon such as terrorism.
Much of the early U.S. counterterrorist policy focused on dealing with hostage incidents—hijackings and kidnappings. In addition to increasing security at airports, the United States sought to improve international cooperation in returning passengers and aircraft and prosecuting or extraditing the hijackers. Gradually, use of this tactic became less frequent, but it never disappeared. In the cases of kidnappings of American diplomats by urban guerrilla organizations in Latin America, the United States initially took the position that the host country must do whatever is necessary, including yielding to the kidnappers' demands. As kidnappings continued, however, resistance grew and the policy moved toward one of no concessions. That policy was sealed in blood in March 1973 with the murder of two American diplomats by members of Black September who demanded, among other things, the release of the convicted assassin of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The no-concessions policy has remained one of the pillars of the U.S. response to terrorism, although at times creative ways to bend it have been sought.
The same hard-line policy was applied to embassy takeovers. Improved security made such takeovers more difficult and governments were increasingly willing to use force. Faced with declining prospects of achieving their demands and growing risks of capture or death, terrorists gradually abandoned the tactic in the 1980s.
American presidents have learned that hostage situations can be politically perilous. Frustration over the inability of the United States to rescue or negotiate the release of American hostages held for more than a year in Iran probably contributed to President James Earl Carter's defeat in the 1980 presidential elections. Six years later, the revelation that the United States, in contradiction to its own no-concessions policy, had secretly sold weapons to Iran in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon deeply embarrassed the Reagan administration.
Since the late 1970s, the question of how to deal with state sponsors of terrorism has been a major policy issue. Under pressure from Congress, the U.S. Department of State identified Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba as state sponsors of terrorism, a list that has changed little in the past quarter century. In 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism recommended that Afghanistan be added to the list and that both Pakistan and Greece be identified as countries that were not fully cooperating with the United States, a suggestion that provoked howls of protest.
Middle East conflicts have motivated most of the major terrorist crises, and most of the states identified by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism are in that part of the world. The region's secular extremists and, increasingly, its religious fanatics have seen themselves as being at war with America. America's steadfast support for the State of Israel has angered many, but even U.S. attempts to broker agreements between Israel and the Palestinians have provoked reactions by hard-liners who oppose any accord. America's close relationship with the shah of Iran, overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries in 1979, was a further source of antagonism. Some Muslim fanatics have come to see the American commitment to the principles of freedom, democracy, and equality and what they regard as a subversive and libertine American popular culture as a dangerous influence to be eradicated. The fanatic terrorists' beliefs require them to strike violently at the American presence and influence, and no reconciliation is in sight. One continuing foreign policy challenge for the United States has been to keep efforts to combat terrorism from appearing to be a war on the Arab world or Islam. The United States opposes the violent tactics of terrorism, not any system of beliefs.
Countries identified as state sponsors of terrorism are subject to economic sanctions that deny U.S. assistance and prohibit trade with the United States, but sanctions are only effective if they are universally enforced. International compliance has been patchy at best, although Syria's blatant involvement in a 1986 plot to plant a bomb aboard an airliner departing London led to further European sanctions against that country. Largely to appease an angry United States, Europe went along with some sanctions against Libya in 1986, and suspected Libyan involvement in the sabotage of PanAm 103 in 1988 and a French airliner in Africa in 1989 resulted in more stringent sanctions being imposed until Libya agreed to turn over two Libyans suspected of involvement in the PanAm incident to a tribunal in The Hague. U.S. sanctions on Libya remained in effect for other reasons. To ensure more universal compliance, the United States has sought to have the United Nations impose sanctions. In 2000 Afghanistan became subject to UN sanctions for its refusal to turn over known terrorists.
Additional sanctions were imposed on Iraq as a consequence of that country's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. However, the issue transcends Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism and involves that country's suspected secret efforts to manufacture chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Sudan entered into productive discussions with the United States in mid-2000 and became a possible candidate for removal of American sanctions.
Sanctions, however, have been criticized as blunt, ineffective instruments—the modern economic equivalent of medieval siege warfare. They inflict more suffering on ordinary people than on the governments in which the people have no say, and efforts have been initiated to develop more precisely targeted sanctions that hurt rulers, not the general populace. Nonetheless, economic sanctions have stunted economic development in these countries and probably have moderated, if not reversed, the behavior of their governments, although that would be hard to prove.