Libya's larger meaning

The tensions between the United States and Libya may make this week's air combat episode a special case. But it points to a general problem of disputed sea boundaries whose solution could help forestall future incidents wherever they might loom.

Washington's position is that it would have asserted its right of access to international waters in the face of any country's territorial claims -- and responded to hostile challenge in kind. It chose the waters near Libya as a particularly suitable place for the recent maneuvers.

Presumably the US -- or another nation -- might someday find reason for exercises off El Salvador or Ecuador, say, each of which claims territorial waters out to 200 nautical miles. In the absence of an internationally accepted Law of the Sea treaty, the world's shores look out on a crazy quilt of differing unilateral claims to territorial sovereignty (which includes air sovereignty) or economic jurisdiction (which applies only to the sea).

According to Libya spokesmen, the controversy over miles claimed is subordinate to their sense of the Gulf of Sidra, where the air engagement occurred, as the kind of body of water that any country would consider part of its sovereign territory. It is such questions that could be resolved through international agreement under a Law of the Sea Treaty, thus leaving no excuse for differing definitions and their potentially violent consequences.

Here is one more reason for the Reagan administration to accompany its review of the United Nations Law of the Sea negotiations with vigorous cooperation in finishing up the all-but-complete treaty. It would replace the present array of conflicting national claims with a uniform and agreed set of rights and responsibilities -- and provide a mechanism for peaceful settlement of disputes. As political scientist Harlan Cleveland details in today's Opinion and Commentary pages, the situation provides many opportunities to choose cooperation over conflict.

As for the Libyan episode in itself, dispute continues over whether the United States deliberately staged its "routine" naval exercises to test Libyan leader Qaddafi or even provoke an incident in which US toughness could be displayed. The administration's denials have been conveyed with an impression that such an outcome was being risked even if not intended. Whatever the facts turn out to be, Washington should emphatically reject any policy of provocation in a world where peace must remain the overriding goal.

A question remains on whether the shooting down of two Libyan planes after one of them fired a missile, as the US described it, was a militarily necessary action in view of the many nonviolent dispersals of Libyan aircraft by US aircraft before and other the shooting incident. Could the US planes have taken evasive action, with the US making a diplomatic protest? Has American morale been boosted, as Defense Secretary Weinberger said, by shooting down the planes of Libya? The latter is a weak nation for all its oil, its links with Moscow, and the support of terrorism for which Washington condemns it.

The occasions for such questions is regard to any nations can be reduced by seeking the international law to make order out of the present oceanic disarray.

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