Understanding Libya's Qaddafi; Libyan Sandstorm, by John K. Cooley. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 348 pp.

John K. Cooley was the right person to present this close-up of Muammar Qaddafi, for, as I recall, his perceptions of the young Libyan officer at the beginning of his rule were among the best that came to our attention, as we in the State Department labored to interpret Qaddafi to the upper crust of the United States government.

The author's knowledge of Libya predates by many years the arrival of Lieutenant Qaddafi on the political scene and his takeover of what was considered the most backward country of Arab North Africa and its impoverished population. Cooley, a former correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor who now works for the American Broadcasting Company in London, does not pretend that his early experience in the country prepared him for the gyrations of the Qaddafi government, both inside and outside the country, but the author did demonstrate more steadiness and awareness of what was going on than did many of his media colleagues of that period.

This volume may astonish the reader who is unaware of, for example, Qaddafi's fierce advocacy of women's rights, which goes far beyond the boldest demands of dedicated women's libbers; his detestation of Anwar Sadat after years of deification when Qaddafi concluded that Sadat's Arabism was false; and his blame of Kissinger and the US ambassador to Egypt for having undermined Sadat's integrity. Then there are details of Qaddafi's efforts to have Queen Elizabeth II torpedoed in the Mediterranean after Israeli aircraft shot down a Libyan passenger plane over the Sinai Desert. These and other insights into Qaddafi's rages do much to explain the general belief that the Libyan leader was a man of insane impulses. World reaction to his involvement with terrorist groups did not improve his standing abroad, either. Yet, as the author makes clear, Qaddafi, at home during all this, was changing the face of Libya, especially along the Mediterranean coast, where the spreading green blanket of foliage and the clean-cut modern construction of schools, hospitals, and factories now testify that in harnessing the country's wealth he had done and is doing much for its small population.

The author did well not to categorize Qaddafi in a political, theological, or administrative sense, for the Libyan leader is driven by strong impulses in those and every other area that attracts his attention. For the most part Cooley's descriptions of Qaddafi tend to impart the impression that he is well-meaning, erratic, and at times quite dangerous.

The 12 chapters of the book hammer home their particular stories, from the day when Qaddafi's thunderstruck parents heard their son's voice heralding - through the loudspeaker of a minaret - the new Libya which he would create, to Qaddafi's recent maneuvers among the problems of oil ownership.

''Libyan Sandstorm'' is a good book, straightforward and entertaining.

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