Fifteen years ago, terrorist car bombs killed nearly 300 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and Marine barracks south of the Lebanese capital. The attacks were quickly pinned on Shiite Muslim fanatics of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Party of God. Washington vowed vengeance; U.S. warships made threatening moves in the eastern Mediterranean; but there were no reprisals.

At about the same time, three Soviet diplomats were kidnapped and killed in Beirut. Moscow issued no statements and made no threats. But pretty soon dead Shiites began showing up all over the city. They had been castrated and horribly tortured. Whether the KGB did the "wet work" or contracted it out to free-lance assassins will never be known. But the message was not lost on Shiite terrorists. Not a single Russian was ever harmed again. Americans remained fair game, however.Over the next few years, Hezbollah and its offshoots seized 90 foreign hostages, including 17 Americans. Eleven were killed or died in captivity and 79 were ultimately freed. The identity and headquarters of the kidnappers were well-known to U.S. intelligence agencies but no attempts were made to rescue the hostages or exact reprisals. The last remaining captives were freed only after arduous negotiations by Terry Waite, an emissary from the Archbishop of Canterbury who was himself kidnapped for a while, and then U.N. Secretary Gen. Javier Peres de Cuellar, who convinced Iran that keeping American hostages had no value after the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf War.

Former hostage Terry Anderson blames his own government more than his kidnappers for 6 1/2 lost years. Washington's inaction may also be blamed for a host of subsequent terrorist attacks on Americans or U.S. interests worldwide.

The Clinton administration did retaliate for Iraq's abortive attempt to assassinate former president George Bush in Kuwait in 1993. Navy ships lobbed 24 cruise missiles at the headquarters of Baghdad's intelligence agency, but in the dead of night when the building was empty of senior officials. They did nothing to intimidate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

There were no reprisals for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded 500. That attack was blamed on Osama bin Laden, the shadowy Saudi millionaire who holes up in Afghanistan, bankrolls a variety of terrorist groups and now is accused of being behind the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Again the Clinton administration chose cruise missiles to retaliate, striking a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of manufacturing chemical weapons.

Bin Laden's terrorist network runs training camps in both countries and is suspected of producing chemical arms at a secret facility in Sudan. But there is some question as to whether the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co. in Khartoum was a front for such activities. It was Sudan's largest producer of antibiotics, malaria medicines and veterinary drugs and had a profitable export business.

Even if it did produce chemical precursors, as National Security Adviser Sandy Berger maintains, many question the wisdom of fighting terrorism with missiles. Terrorists respect ruthlessness, being ruthless themselves. But it must be highly selective, fought in secret, targeting only those responsible and never acknowledging guilt. The Russians demonstrated such ruthlessness in Beirut. The Israelis, too, have perfected the art of fighting terror with terror.

Despite some spectacular foul-ups - such as the killing of a Danish waiter in Copenhagen and the botched assassination of a Hamas operative in Amman, Jordan - Mossad has racked up a deadly record of hits on Palestinian terrorists without ever bragging about it. The terrorists know who did it, and that's enough for the Israelis.

In contrast, the American response to terrorism seems clumsy and ineffective.

Our government imposes sanctions on so-called rogue nations that sponsor terrorism - which hasn't altered their behavior one bit - but makes no effort to go after the terrorists on the ground. In most cases it does not even retaliate for terrorist attacks. In some cases it tries to make terrorists or countries that sponsor them respect the rule of law, when both operate well outside it. A classic case in point is Libya. A decade after Libyan terrorists blew up Pan Am flight 103 over Lock-er-bie, Scotland, the United States is still trying to persuade Libya to surrender the suspects and is dickering about where they should be tried.

In the few instances where there has been retaliation, such as President Ronald Reagan's bombing of Libya and President Clinton's use of Tomahawk missiles, the military overkill and "ancillary damage" - a polite euphemism for civilian casualties - cause international outrage that wipes out whatever sympathy was generated for the victims of the terrorist attack that prompted the reprisal.

The embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania had been universally condemned, not least because the blasts aimed at Americans also killed or maimed thousands of innocent Africans. But Clinton's missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan immediately redirected that anger toward the United States, which was accused of practicing its own brand of "terrorism" against those two well-known state sponsors of terrorism.

In terms of deterrence, the Tomahawks achieved nothing. In fact, they may provoke even more terrorism. Bin Laden is uncowed and, according to a Karachi newspaper, offering a $100,000 reward for every American killed. Some Islamic nations that initially condemned him have now joined in his calls for revenge.

There would, of course, be a similar outcry if U.S. Special Forces troops raided bin Laden's headquarters in Afghanistan and actually succeeded in killing him. But such a mission would be secretly admired, even by its critics, and it would send a message to other terrorist masterminds that the United States will go to any lengths to put them out of business.

Of course that will never happen. Being a civilized nation, we have officially renounced the use of assassination and other extralegal means to fight terrorism. And poll-driven presidents don't dare send American troops into harm's way, especially in an election year, when they can score more points by simply lobbing missiles from the safety of American ships at sea.

It may not hurt him at home but it does not help us abroad that Clinton had just confessed to a sexual dalliance with a White House intern. Even some of our allies questioned Clinton's motive in ordering a missile strike only two days after his mea culpa. His previous missile attacks on Iraq - variously blamed on Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones - have reinforced a widely held foreign perception that Clinton likes to throw Tomahawks around whenever he wants to distract Americans from his domestic travails.

It can, of course, be argued that the president's sex life is nobody's business but his own, with no bearing on how he conducts himself in the face of terrorism. But it does affect his conduct of U.S. foreign policy and our nation's influence abroad. When rioting mobs in Pakistan hold up signs blaming Monica Lewinsky for Clinton's missile flexing, the president's "lapse of judgment" becomes our business.