US raid on Libya: it's a tossup on who won. Reagan won points at home, Qaddafi won greater Arab backing
Perhaps the most interesting single feature in the dramatic events of the past week is the fact that Britain allowed American bombers and their supporting aircraft to take off from bases in England for the raid on Libya. This reflected the survival to this day of the special relationship that developed during World War II between the United States and Britain. It operated during the Falklands war, when the US provided full intelligence support to the British expeditionary force. In a sense, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded this week by allowing the use of bases on British soil in what the other NATO allies regarded as a private war between the US and Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.
In another sense, President Reagan had cashed in his Falklands war IOU from Mrs. Thatcher in order to have some show of involvement by the NATO allies.
Although the use of bases in Britain did show some NATO collaboration, it also showed by contrast the absence of any other type of NATO sharing. The French refusal to allow the US planes to fly over French territory made plain that country's feelings about the matter. Portugal announced its refusal without, so far as this reporter can learn, having even been asked. Spain also refused. Italy would have done so had it been asked, which it apparently was not. West Germany was not on the flying route, hence the issue did not come up. But clearly, the West Germans wanted no part in this operation.
And, of course, while Mrs. Thatcher did allow the use of her air fields, she did not send British bombers along with the Americans.
In other words, this is one more item on the list of military operations conducted by members of the NATO alliance which have not had the support of other members. It was not a NATO issue.
All the European NATO allies were energetic, as soon as the shooting was over, in trying to gloss over their nonparticipation by promising to take such actions as they could within their own boundaries to reduce opportunities for Libyan-inspired acts of violence.
So, the week showed the US using its military power against Colonel Qaddafi in the presumed hope that it would discourage him from further acts of violence. It left behind the question of whether it would in fact discourage him by enough to justify the cost.
The cost of the operation includes a strain on the NATO alliance, shock and resentment in the Arab community, cancellation of a scheduled meeting between US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnazde, and one missing bomber.
Incidental pluses are: popular approval at home for President Reagan and joy among his ``new conservative'' supporters who favor this and many more uses of American military power. Israel also applauded.
But the final balance sheet will have to include the effect on Colonel Qaddafi. Will he in the future be more circumspect about what he supports or encourages against American and other targets?
If this does clip his claws, then Washington will certainly feel that the loss of one American bomber and its two pilots, a lapse in arrangements with the Soviets for the next summit, and strain on the NATO alliance were justified.
It is doubtful that the Russians will actually delay the summit because of Libya. The NATO allies all want to smooth over their differences with Washington.
The most likely minus that might linger would be an increasing lack of confidence among the allies in the wisdom and good judgment of US foreign policy. Ever since Vietnam, there has been a nagging doubt on this point. US foreign policy since Kennedy tends to be regarded as erratic and given to unnecessary violence, when objectives might be achieved just as well -- perhaps better -- through using diplomacy and economic support, or withdrawal.
The Western allies in this case feel that Qaddafi could have been constrained more effectively by other means. The jury is out on that point. We do not know what he will do next. He has been winged and wounded, but not crippled or taken out of action. His capability of setting off more acts of violence is probably just as great as ever. Also, Qaddafi has identified himself in Arab eyes as a front-line soldier for Arab causes. His prominence is greater than ever. He has always wanted attention. Washington has helped him get it. For him, probably, Reagan has done him a good turn.
It remains to be seen whether Reagan or Qaddafi is the long-term net winner.