WASHINGTON — The air battle between US and Libyan fighters over the Mediterranean Wednesday highlights the tumultuous relationship between Col. Muammar Qaddafi and President Reagan. Mr. Qaddafi has been on Mr. Reagan's ``bad boy'' list since 1981, and the colonel apparently saw himself as the spoiler for Reagan initiatives in the Middle East and northern Africa.
In this case, US officials say, the dogfight was apparently generated by Qaddafi's concern that the US was going to launch a preemptive attack against an alleged Libyan chemical-weapons facility 35 miles south of Tripoli.
``They are scared, there is no question about that,'' a senior US official says. ``We've seen all sorts of signs that Qaddafi is frightened'' about US intentions.
Initial speculation in Washington is that Qaddafi sent his jets out to investigate the US aircraft carrier and a fight ensued. Some suggest the Libyans may have even wanted a small scrap to generate international pressure to head off a US assault.
The United States has upped the verbal pressure in an effort to stop Libya from bringing its new chemical plant on line. The US has been trying to generate support among allies for this tack, especially in preparation for this weekend's Paris conference on chemical weapons. But Washington has run into footdragging, they say, from European and other allies.
``We're really worried,'' a top US official says. Not only is this the largest production facility the US has seen anywhere, he says, but it could make Qaddafi a major exporter of chemical weapons. ``What kind of capability does he want after all? How many Chadians does he want to gas?'' the official asks. (Libya, at least once, used chemical weapons acquired from Iran against Chadian troops in 1987, US officials say.)
Three senior US officials who follow Libya from different vantage points told the Monitor that US evidence on Libya's chemical plant is ``very hard'' and from a variety of sources. The US believes Libya has already produced small quantities of chemical weapons at the plant, but that it is not yet at full production, and needs additional aid from Western countries to achieve that.
Libya says the plant is intended to produce pharmaceuticals, and has offered an inspection. The US says a one-time look isn't good enough; such plants can easily revert to weapons production.
The same hesitancy of US allies to press Qaddafi is seen in the counterterrorism area, US officials say. Despite evidence of Libyan support for such terrorist groups as the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), they say, the Europeans have been hesitant to lay down the line with Qaddafi and are rather enticed by commercial opportunities in Libya. ANO is one of the leading suspects in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
However, Wednesday's clash may make it harder for the US to change Qaddafi's behavior, says Henry Schuler of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
``The biggest tragedy in this,'' he says, ``is that it tends to assure Qaddafi's survival. It will rally his people and fellow Arabs around him, even if they otherwise have great reason to oppose him.''
``The problem with heightened US rhetoric on Libya,'' he adds, ``is that the US paints itself into a corner and then it finds it either has to step down or take a military action it would prefer not to....'' After all nobody was talking about taking out Iraq's chemical plants.''
If Libya is eventually linked to the Pan Am bombing, another Washington specialist says, the pressure for the new Bush administration to act will probably be well-nigh irresistible, even if the options for retaliation are unattractive.