Coping with Qaddafi

The international troublemaker Muammar Qaddafi is back in the news again: Egypt's President Mubarak has accused him of planning an attack on the Aswan Dam and the Suez Canal. Presumably Egypt, which is 10 times as strong, can take care of itself, but where does this leave United States diplomacy?

Thanks to midsummer doldrums and campaign overkill coverage, the administration has managed to sweep under the rug a massive foreign policy failure in North Africa.

On Aug. 14, Morocco and Libya signed the treaty of Qujda, creating a loose political union between the two countries. If the union with Morocco endures, this will be Libya's sixth political marriage, after earlier unions with other nearby nations. Like the others, this union leaves each entity with all the attributes of national sovereignty, except for a vaguely worded and probably symbolic provision for a shared ''presidency.'' Nevertheless, the treaty contains some disturbing features and represents an important diplomatic victory for the Libyan leader.

Article 132 of the treaty stipulates that any ''aggression'' against one of the parties will constitute aggression against the other. Another article provides for a joint defense council. This raises the question whether the periodic sweeps by ships of the US Sixth Fleet in the Gulf of Sirte, which are intended to display the US presence and reaffirm US insistence on a three-mile territorial sea, could embroil the US with Morocco. It also raises the question of whether some future French deployment of ground and air units against Libyan ambitions in Africa would similarly constitute ''aggression.''

Although widely trumpeted as such, Morocco is not in fact an ally of the US. King Hassan II has granted transit rights for the US Redeployment Force and a site for a huge Voice of America transmitter, and he has been otherwise cooperative with US policy, but Morocco is part of the Muslim world and he is acutely sensitive to its winds of change. The treaty of Oujda is the culmination of a process of reconciliation between Morocco and Libya which began when Libya dropped support of the Polisario guerrillas a year ago. It has made US policy in North Africa look ridiculous, since Morocco gets an average of $150 million a year in US aid and the initiative for the union came from King Hassan himself.

For years Colonel Qaddafi has been a disruptive force in the Mediterranean basin, providing funds, training, and a safe haven for terrorist movements directed against Israel and his political enemies in the Muslim world. More recently, he has conducted a campaign of border harassment against the Sudan and an invasion of neighboring Chad at the invitation of a local rebel movement. He has also been terrorizing Libyan dissidents abroad. His agents have murdered exiles in six Western countries, and in April sprayed machine-gun fire from the Libyan ''people's bureau'' which killed a policewoman and injured over a dozen bystanders.

The response of both the Carter and Reagan administrations has been to try to isolate Libya by stridently denouncing Colonel Qaddafi in world forums and suspending aid programs and diplomatic relations. But the US campaign to ostracize Qaddafi has met a cool reception and has been at most an inconvenience to the eccentric and resilient Libyan leader, who on Sept. 2 celebrated his 15th year in power.

Libya is an oil-rich country with only 3 million inhabitants. Its consumer needs and appetite for advanced military hardware are satisfied from a wide range of sources other than the US. Thousands of British, French, and Italian technicians, engineers, and businessmen have resided in Libya throughout Colonel Qaddafi's stormy political relationships with their governments, though from time to time a few have been singled out for temporary incarceration as hostages for Libyans jailed overseas. Even the US has not interfered with private investment in Libya. Despite nationalization of the oil fields, Occidental Petroleum remains a major factor in Libya's petroleum development, and Brown & Root is about to begin a giant water resource project.

At about the same time the US suffered the reverse that the Libyan-Moroccan treaty represents, France brought off a resounding diplomatic coup by getting Colonel Qaddafi to agree to withdraw Libya's forces from Chad. The recent French agreement for mutual withdrawal strikingly illustrates the advantages of the more restrained and hence more successful European approach to the Qaddafi problem. In general, European governments act on the assumption that Qaddafi's revolutionary zeal is primarily directed toward the Muslim world; that he bears no enmity to the West except where Western interests collide with his own regional ambitions; and that paying too much attention to him only inflates his importance. The European policy of restrained rhetoric coupled with vigorous local counteraction - in effect, limited containment - has enabled France to checkmate Libya in Chad, and Britain to crack down on Libyan gunmen in London, without unduly endangering their citizens or business interests inside Libya.

Colonel Qaddafi is undoubtedly a disruptive force, but not by virtue of his military potential. He is a latter-day Mahdi who for the moment is riding the tiger of left-wing Islamic fundamentalism which outsiders meddle with at their peril. It is time for the Reagan administration to end the polemics and shift to the same policy of nonconfrontational containment as France. We should furnish emergency military assistance to Libya's neighbors when they request it, and refuse to tolerate illegal Libyan activity on US soil, but otherwise our best course is to mind our own business.

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