Responding to Qaddafi

In retaliation for the Pan Am bombing, diplomatic and economic pressure will ultimately be more effective than any resort to force

THE United States, Great Britain, and France have been seeking international support to punish Libya for its role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in which 270 people were killed, and in the 1989 bombing of a French UTA airliner in which 170 died. Six senior Libyan officials, including Col. Muammar Qaddafi's brother-in-law, are under indictment by US and French authorities.

The three governments have primarily discussed a range of economic sanctions but have not ruled out the use of military force as a last resort. In considering options, the Bush administration and its European allies would do well to review the effects of previous Western responses to Libyan aggression.

In the spring of 1977, Colonel Qaddafi dispatched a team of agents to assassinate the US ambassador to Egypt. When President Carter learned of the plot from the CIA, he sent a hand-written warning to Qaddafi. The Libyan leader called his agents back to Tripoli.

US relations with Libya have seldom been so artful or discreet. In 1981, US Navy ships crossed Qaddafi's self-proclaimed "line of death" in the Gulf of Sidra. Qaddafi launched several jets that were promptly destroyed by the US forces. Afterward, Qaddafi thanked the US for making him a hero to the third world.

During the next few years, US officials fed Qaddafi a steady diet of public threats with the intention of deterring him - a policy of "speak loudly and carry a small stick." The rhetoric backfired as Qaddafi, who thrives on the limelight, gleefully joined the war of words. "There's no question we created a bit of a Frankenstein's monster," a National Security Council staff member admitted, "but the monster was supposed to spook Qaddafi."

In 1986, after a prolonged period of aggressive anti-terrorist, anti-Qaddafi rhetoric, a Berlin disco frequented by US servicemen was lethally bombed. After the attack was traced to Libyan agents, US warplanes struck Libyan targets.

How effective was the US military action? After the raid, Westerners enjoyed a quiet tourist season, unmarred by major terrorist actions. US officials were encouraged by reduced communications traffic and travel by Libyan agents, which they took as a sign of reduced terrorist plotting. By the end of 1987, most agreed that the US military action had achieved its desired effect.

But the failure of Qaddafi to bounce back was due less to restraint on his part than to increased cooperation between Western police and intelligence services that resulted in dramatic improvements in security.

* Only days after the air strikes, Libyans with hand grenades were arrested near a US officers' club in Ankara where 100 people, including many women and children, were attending a wedding reception.

* The following week in Madrid two men acting under the direction of the Libyan ambassador were caught planting a bomb at a Bank of America facility.

* In the fall of 1987, quite by accident, a Japanese Red Army terrorist armed with explosives was apprehended on the New Jersey Turnpike, bound for New York, where he intended to blow up a Navy recruiting office on the anniversary of the US air strikes against Libya. It was determined that the Libyan government was behind the plot.

It is clear that Qaddafi was not deterred by the US military action. On the contrary, he felt compelled to retaliate but decided to pursue his terrorist activities more covertly. In the wake of the air strikes, Qaddafi shifted his terrorist operations abroad from the "people's bureaus" to less conspicuous institutions, including Libyan airline offices and trading companies, Libyan-owned second-class hotels in Italy and France, and West European banks with Libyan interests. He also stopped using communica tions channels monitored by US intelligence services. To further hide his hand, Qaddafi increased his reliance on surrogates like the Japanese Red Army and Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal.

There was one very positive, if accidental, consequence of the US military action - it ushered in a new era of Western cooperation against terrorism. In unprecedented fashion, the European Community imposed rigorous diplomatic and economic sanctions against Libya. "You raised the stakes and we feared that if we don't do something, the US would try something even crazier on its own the next time," explained one European diplomat.

The European Community has now raised the possibility of implementing sanctions if Libya does not extradite the accused officials. Qaddafi's unusually conciliatory stance throughout this crisis stems from his fear of further diplomatic and economic isolation. Such initiatives have a much greater potential for magnifying dissidence in Libya than does the threat or use of force.

Military confrontation, like public threats, does not deter Qaddafi but only magnifies his stature, reducing dissidence and leading his people to rally round the flag. Political and economic measures implemented in a climate of Western cooperation are the most effective means of constraining - and weakening - Libya's reckless leader. James DeHart is a research associate for the political psychology program of George Washington University. Dr. Jerrold Post, who is director of the program, is professor of political psychology and international affairs.

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