Keep cool on Chad

President Reagan has reason to be keeping a watchful eye on the African country of Chad. Not because the civil war there impinges directly on US interests. But because, if Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of Libya succeeds in his efforts to overthrow the present Chadian government, he could again try to use Chad as a jumping off point to destabilize neighboring Sudan and even Egypt. With his immense wealth and revolutionary brand of Islam, he could also try to threaten all the sub-Saharan states, including Nigeria. So there are strategic concerns on the African continent to be taken into account.

That said, however, the United States would do well to let the nations of the region take the lead in dealing with Colonel Qaddafi. The President has increased total US aid for Chad to a modest $25 million, and provided some military support. That seems reasonable. But does the dispatch of two AWACS reconnaissance planes to the area, while billed as a measured response, give the US more visibility than is prudent? It is significant that France, which was the former colonial power in Chad and therefore has a more vital interest there, has ruled out sending combat planes or ground troops, though it is stepping up its supply of arms to the Habre government. The French have good experience at knowing when not to get overinvolved. Washington should pay heed.

It is the African countries themselves which should be worried about the unpredictable Colonel Qaddafi. It is after all their governments and their security which are at stake. Egypt, Zaire, Morocco, and others have a direct interest in curbing Qaddafi's revolutionary ambitions in Chad (Zaire actually has troops there). These countries could, among other things, press the issue vigorously in the Organization of African Unity. If they failed to develop a strong regional reaction, one would have to conclude that they saw no threat in the Libyan intervention. In such case, why should the United States be out front? Especially when there are no indications that the Russians are directly behind Colonel Qaddafi's summer madness? Washington policymakers must know that the adventuristic Libyan leader would like nothing better than to be seen grappling with the US, a confrontation that serves to enhance his prestige in much of the Arab world. Also, the more the US threatens, so to speak, the more risk it takes that Libya will align itself ever more closely with Moscow.

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Above all, the Reagan administration should be careful not to build up the image of President Habre and convey that the US is somehow coming to the defense of an honorable government. The fact is, both leaders in the civil conflict - Mr. Habre and former Chadian president Goukhouni Woddei who is trying to oust him - are men with a record of ruthlessness. Moreover, Habre himself seized power in a coup against Goukhouni in 1982. Which side, many wonder, constitutes the ''legitimate'' government?

It can thus be hoped that American diplomacy will be mature and astute enough to stay clear of an unnecessary entanglement in a remote desert land that most Americans have not even heard of. While itself keeping a low profile, the United States can work to encourage Mr. Qaddafi's neighbors to develop the appropriate responses to Libyan aggression or, barring that, let the European countries play the larger role. It is fair to assume that, while local leaders grasping for political power are happy to take advantage of Libya's support, in the end no African country wants to be under the thumb of the blustering, quixotic colonel.

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