MANY Americans were puzzled and some were resentful because their country's allies in Western Europe failed to join in the attack on Libya. The abstention of the allies should have caused neither surprise nor resentment. It merely pointed up two facts that tend to be forgotten. The NATO alliance is by careful definition a defensive alliance only. And it does not cover the interests of NATO members outside the NATO area.
The text of the alliance says that its members agree that ``an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe and North America shall be considered an attack against all.''
Has Colonel Qaddafi of Libya delivered ``an armed attack'' on the United States in North America?
President Reagan in Washington assumes that the United States has been attacked because one American soldier was killed in the bombing of the discoth`eque in West Berlin. But within the terms of NATO, an ``armed attack'' means something a lot larger than a single bomb in a discoth`eque.
When shots fired from the Libyan embassy in London killed a London policewoman, the British broke off relations with Libya, but they did not mount a reprisal attack on Libya and they did not ask or expect any of their NATO allies to regard the incident as a NATO matter.
Much earlier, the idea that NATO covered acts of its members in far parts of the world was dispelled decisively at Dien Bien Phu, Indochina, in 1954, and at Suez in 1956.
A French army was besieged at Dien Bien Phu. France hoped the United States would use its military power to rescue that French army. American air craft carriers were within range of the fighting. Squadrons of US Navy bombers were actually on deck, armed and ready. And Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was said to favor a rescue effort.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower voted no. The French surrendered. It was a terrible humiliation for French arms. It was the end of the French empire in Asia. But no NATO ally lifted a finger to help. The attempt of France to regain its pre-World War II empire was proved to be a non-NATO issue.
In 1956, Britain and France, in clandestine collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt in an attempt to topple President Nasser of Egypt and regain control of the Suez Canal. Israel's share in the spoils was to have been the Sinai Peninsula.
Not only did the US decline to regard it as a NATO issue requiring US support, but President Eisenhower actually applied US sanctions against all three invaders and literally forced them to stop the invasion and to back out of the territory they had occupied in the fighting. He shut off oil and credit to all three as a means of causing them to desist and withdraw.
The failure of the United States to support its allies in those two episodes still rankles in Tory quarters in Britain and military and conservative quarters in France. The memory of being repudiated by the US at Suez explains in part the firmness of the French in declining to play any role in today's war on Colonel Qaddafi.
In a postscript in 1962, the allies stood on the sidelines as mere spectators when the French were forced to give up Algeria.
In the eyes of the European allies, President Reagan's war against Colonel Qaddafi is as much outside the NATO area as were Dien Bien Phu or Suez. Besides, the national interests of all the NATO allies in Western Europe are deemed to be in having the best possible relations with the Arab countries.
It is not softness that keeps the allies out of the war on Qaddafi. It is just plain national interest. President Reagan thinks it is in the US national interest to attack Qaddafi. The Europeans regard the attack as being contrary to their national interests.
Like Dien Bien Phu, Suez, Vietnam, and now Libya, this affair illustrates the limitations of the NATO alliance. It was formed, back in 1949, for mutual protection against the danger of a Soviet attack on Western Europe. It exists to protect all its members against a Soviet attack. It operates to protect against such an attack. But it exists for no other purpose.
The use of the word ``ally'' can be misleading. Americans tend to assume that anyone who is his ally is with him in all things. Not so.
Americans did not support the French or British in their efforts to hang on to their prewar colonial empires after World War II. The British and French did not support the United States in its war in Vietnam, nor now against Libya.
But the alliance is as strong as ever for defense against Soviet attack.