The U.S. government recently warned American citizens worldwide that they are potential targets of terrorist attacks financed by Osama bin Laden. First, the FBI alerted the U.S. business community overseas that bin Laden had offered bounties worth thousands of dollars for killing Americans. Later, the State Department issued a warning that “Americans should maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel and treat mail from unfamiliar sources with suspicion.”

Such warnings illustrate the difficulty the world’s only remaining superpower faces in protecting its citizens against lowly terrorist groups. And it is both ironic and potentially tragic that the very government issuing those warnings caused the problem in the first place.

Most people--no matter where they fall on the American political spectrum--would agree that one of the most important functions of any government is to protect citizens and their property. In fact, that should be the first goal of any nation’s security policy and should not be sacrificed for lesser goals. Yet U.S. security policy violates that fundamental principle.

One of three terrorist attacks worldwide is directed against a U.S. target. And that’s not because the United States is a rich capitalist nation. There are plenty of countries that fit that description. It’s not because the United States exports its “decadent” culture overseas. Other nations export Western culture, and some of their exports are as “decadent” as or more “decadent” than those of the United States. No, terrorists attack the United States primarily for what it does, not what it is.

Even after the Cold War, the United States continues to intervene willy-nilly in the affairs of other nations. It seems especially inclined to meddle in internecine ethnic disputes abroad, most recently in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Ethnic conflicts, which often arouse great passions, spawn groups that commit acts of terror to retaliate for U.S. intervention. Terrorists, such as bin Laden, also object to U.S. support of regimes they regard as unsavory.

During the Cold War, the perceived benefits of such intervention in the Third World--forestalling the influence of a communist superpower--were greater than the perceived consequences, terrorist attacks that were regarded by great powers as pinpricks. That logic was always dubious, but the calculus has now changed dramatically.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the need for such intervention--particularly in regions that have never been particularly strategic to the United States--is highly questionable. The United States appears to be interfering in such places because it can, not because it must. In sum, the benefits of such intervention--modest even during the Cold War--have declined.

At the same time, the potential costs of an interventionist foreign policy have escalated dramatically. Today, terrorist groups seeking revenge for U.S. interference seem more willing than their predecessors to kill on a horrifying scale. The Egyptian fundamentalist who headed the group that tried to bring down the World Trade Center in New York said that he was trying to kill 250,000 people. The proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear materials and technology (used in making weapons of mass destruction) around the world makes it much easier for terrorists to achieve this gruesome goal at a U.S. installation overseas or even right here at home.

According to FBI director Louis Freeh, “The trend toward more large-scale incidents designed for maximum destruction, terror, and media impact actually places an increasing proportion of our population at risk.” He concluded, “These weapons of mass destruction represent perhaps the most serious potential threat facing the United States today.”

If Freeh is correct--and mere logic indicates that he is--this threat overwhelms any threat (real or imagined) from instability in far-away places such as Bosnia or Kosovo. The strategic environment has changed dramatically. Even comparatively weak terrorist groups can now inflict massive damage on a superpower. Unfortunately, while the Clinton administration acknowledges the problem, it shies away from the only viable way to significantly reduce the chances of a catastrophic attack. Because terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction are extremely difficult to prevent or mitigate, the administration needs to concentrate its efforts on minimizing the motivation for such attacks in the first place. The United States should resist the temptation to intervene overseas in situations that are not critical to its vital interests. This temptation will be especially great when humanitarian arguments are offered for intervention. But even when it is not a cover for other motives, intervention for humanitarian purposes is usually not perceived as neutral by all parties to a conflict. Some of those parties may eventually seek revenge for U.S. intervention they resent.

In short, U.S. policymakers should get back to basics and remember that a nation’s security policy should first protect its own citizens, both overseas and at home. Americans should not have to live in fear of terrorism just so Washington‘s foreign policy elite can attempt to achieve amorphous and ephemeral gains on the world chessboard.