American and Western officials describe the Clinton administration's decision to use missile strikes to respond to the embassy bombings in East Africa as a significant departure from its past practice of seeking international support and U.N. authorization for American military action.

In the past, citing "aggressive multilateralism," the Clinton administration has waited for law enforcement authorities to come to a conclusion or has sought the broadest possible international support for its actions. It has preferred to use sanctions or to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force after presenting the evidence.But with the long stalemate in the Middle East, the lack of Saudi cooperation with the 1996 bombing of American troops at Khobar Towers and the shift in Iraqi policy due to irresolution from the Security Council, Clinton was less inclined to wait and allow America "to again appear weak or irresolute," a senior American official said.

"This is a departure," a senior State Department official said. "This is the beginning of a serious effort to go after terrorists who threaten Americans."

Several senior officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended the rapid use of military force against the terrorism network of Osama bin Laden, citing several factors: the ambivalence of Muslim allies, the United Nations' delay in dealing with Iraq, and mounting evidence of plans for impending attacks on more American embassies.

Another official emphasized the importance of imminent threat rather than retaliation. "We're not in the tit-for-tat business," he said. "We're in the deterrence business." Deterrence, he suggested, is not built on overly legalistic niceties or delay.

Senior Arab diplomats said that Arab ambassadors complained Friday to the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Martin Indyk, that striking Sudan - a member of the Arab League - was a strategic error, and noted that even Egypt had chosen to keep public silence about the strikes.

But they did not make a point of defending bin Laden in private, though their countries refused to support the missile strikes in public.