The overriding message to the world from Thursday's strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan is that the United States will not sit idly by while its interests and people are attacked.

That's an important message, considering a coalition of extremist Islamic groups said earlier this week it plans to continue its "holy war" against the United States. Unfortunately, however, the message has been muddled somewhat by the president's personal crisis. The United States has run headlong into its first test of how a leader who has admitted lying to the nation can lead in a crisis.But prudence dictates this is not the time to question motives or to criticize the chief executive. To do so publicly, as a number of members of Congress did immediately after the bombing Thursday, is to risk giving comfort to the enemy.

No one can seriously question the need to respond to the bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam - bombings that killed 12 Americans and hundreds of local residents. Intelligence sources apparently have found evidence linking the bombings to Osama bin Laden, an avowed enemy of the United States and Israel. Bin Laden is a man of enormous wealth who is believed to be funding terrorist activities in many parts of the world.

Both Sudan and Afghanistan are well-known havens for terrorists. According to the State Department's annual report on global terrorism, Sudan is a "haven, meeting place and training hub of international terrorist organizations . . . " The report also calls Afghanistan a training ground and a home base for Islamic extremists from several countries. The Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan, provides official sanction to these international criminals. The president said a gathering of key terrorist leaders was to take place there Thursday, thus precipitating the strike.

As with Libya a decade ago, the most effective way to encourage today's rogue nations to abandon terrorist efforts is through effective military strikes. Thursday's action no doubt has sent a strong message, but it may well be followed by retaliation against other U.S. interests. In part, terrorists may be emboldened by the president's personal problems, thinking the United States lacks the resolve to wage a prolonged campaign. The president's weakened position is, unfortunately, a factor in international relations.

That's why the president's speech Thursday afternoon, in which he acknowledged the war against terrorism "will be a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism, between the rule of law and terrorism," was well-said. It's why the president's actions, despite their timing so close to his humiliating speech Monday night, deserve support.

The United States can't afford not to respond to terrorism when it identifies the source. Inaction would send a message far more damaging to the long-term safety of Americans than any well-crafted military strike.