Washington — One year ago, United States land and carrier-based warplanes swooped down out of the night sky over Libya to deliver the ultimate American response to terrorism. Today, US officials say the controversial air strike has had its effect on the behavior of Libya's inscrutable leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
``I think it's had a very chilling effect,'' a senior Reagan administration official told reporters last week. ``Libyan terrorist activity has been reduced substantially since our bombing. Qaddafi at a minimum is more circumspect in terrorist activity.''
But if the threat of Libyan terrorism has diminished, other factors are at work as well:
Economic troubles have forced Colonel Qaddafi to concentrate on domestic issues. With the collapse of oil prices, Libya's yearly oil revenues have dropped from $22 billion to $5 billion in just seven years. The belt tightening has produced economic hardship and food lines and has reduced European business ties with Libya. Qaddafi now has less time and fewer resources to create trouble abroad.
Military setbacks have diminished Qaddafi's stature at home. The rout of Libya's occupation forces in neighboring Chad has left 3,000 Libyan soldiers dead or wounded. Recent publicized defections of Libyan Air Force personnel to Egypt, prompted by the war in Chad, may signal serious unrest within Libya's military.
``Chad reinforces [Qaddafi's] sense of isolation,'' says William H. Lewis, a Midlle East specialist at George Washington University. ``He's clearly no longer the popular figure at home he once was.''
``Qaddafi could explain away the US raid as an attack by an imperialist power,'' adds Lisa Anderson of Columbia University. ``In contrast, it will be much harder to justify the defeat in Chad, even given the fact that Chad was supplied by the US and France.''
The US has provided Chad with $35 million in arms. France has supplied over $40 million in arms, plus training and logistical help used to expel Libyan troops from northern Chad.
Earlier this week a State Department spokesman dismissed reports that Qaddafi was interested in a ``rapprochement'' with the US. The official said improved relations with Qaddafi will be impossible short of ``concrete, durable evidence of change in his policies of aggression and support for terrorism.''
In January 1986 President Reagan severed economic ties with Libya and froze Libyan assets in US banks following allegations of Qaddafi's involvement in twin terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna the previous month.
Pressure on Qaddafi culminated with the air strike after US officials became convinced that he was behind the bombing of a Berlin nightclub that left one US serviceman dead and scores wounded.
Evidence linking Qaddafi to major terrorist incidents, including the twin airport bombings, is regarded by many terrorism experts as largely circumstantial.
``The [US air] raid made a lot of difference in terms of Libyan terrorism; but I don't think Libyan terrorism has been the important terrorism,'' says Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. ``Libya is hardly benign, but the attacks over which we are primarily concerned were apparently Syrian-sponsored.''
In addition, some experts say the administration has found it convenient to exaggerate the threat posed by Qaddafi since Libya has been such a vulnerable target for US retaliation.
``It's a bizarre accounting,'' says Sherman Teichman, a professor of international relations at Tufts University, of US assessments of the effect of the raid on Libya. ``It's like having a mute, taking his tongue out, then saying he talks less.''
Professor Teichman says Libya has clearly been guilty of terrorism but says US officials have overstated the threat, which he also says is less than that posed by Syria and Iran. But because Libya is more vulnerable, says Teichman, the US has focused on Libya as a ``target of opportunity'' to demonstrate US resolve in dealing with the terrorist threat.
Experts here generally agree that, while subdued, Qaddafi remains a threat. Libya, they say, continues to provide money, training, and moral support to other groups committing terrorist acts, including the Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Libyan agents have also been linked to the assassination of Libyan opoposition leaders abroad.
In addition to cooling Qaddafi's appetite for terrorist activity, at least temporarily, last April's raid is also credited with spurring West European countries to improve their own efforts to combat terrorism. One hundred Libyan diplomats have been expelled since the raid and national police agencies are working in closer cooperation.
Despite Qaddafi's deepening problems at home, his overthrow is not regarded as imminent. Organized opposition inside Libya is virtually nonexistent. And the colonel, who recently moved his military command structure to the desert village of Al-Jufrah, commands an intelligence service that has been effective in tracking political enemies.