If the United States is to deal successfully with Libya, it must understand Libyan motives. There is little indication the US government understands Libya and this ignorance guarantees American weakness.
By treating Libya and Qaddafi as international menaces, the United States reinforces Libyan bluster and radicalism. The US confirms that the mask is believed, confirms that Libya is considered stronger than it really is. This gives justification to Libya's radical posture well beyond its original purpose. The US, therefore, is aiding the voice of irreconciliation in the Middle East.
Libya's noisy commitment to a hyperactive foreign policy linked to the most radical of Arab and Soviet designs is taken at face value by Western governments and press alike. Two Libyan piloted aircraft are sent to confront the Sixth Fleet. The possibility of war with the US or its proxies is publicly accepted as practically inevitable by Libyan officials.
Yet, aside from the intervention into Chad, which risked little and served to enhance a radical image, Libyan foreign policy in practice consists largely of words, tokens, asylum giving, monetary grants, guerrilla training, and foreign visits. It is a ceremonial, posturing, ideological, check-writing foreign policy. There is scant physical commitment to reshape the region, much less the world.
Qaddafi truly believes in revolution, Arab unity, and national liberation, but the extremes to which he goes are pure theater. His purpose is to create a Libyan image of national unity and military strength, of fearlessness in the face of hostile powers, of enjoying powerful allies, and of embodying universal political virtues. Did not the American, Russian, Mexican, Chinese, and Cuban revolutionary leaders use the same strategy to protect their feeble societies? The mask of strength had to be created. For to transform a society is itself a weakening process with its untried procedures, misallocated resources, amateur managers, fragile communications, and disgruntled traditionalists.
By threatening Libya with the Sixth Fleet, arms to Egypt and Sudan, and callous musings on the elimination of Qaddafi, the US dumps upon itself huge political and economic costs.
First, the more the US threatens, the closer Libya will align with the Soviets. Qaddafi knows Libya's weakness. He accepts "foreign imperialism" as a fact. And, although any foreign dependence is abhorred, including dependence upon an imperialist Soviet Union, dependence is preferable to outright defeat. "No more defeats at the hands of foreigners" would be Libya's national motto if it were not for the embarassment of it all.
After the Gulf of Sidra incident, Libya warned the US that further threats would mean the creation of Soviet bases, something the Libyans have so far strenuously resisted. If the Soviets do get military bases, the US will be responsible.
Second, given the broad nature of Libya's mask, with its Arabic, Islamic, and third-world themes, US threats to Libya are seen as threatening the Arab community, Islam, and the third world. It is not that these peoples endorse Qaddafi's specific actions, only that they interpret an attack upon his symbols and person as an attack upon themselves. The entire Arab press, for instance, has condemned the US role in the Gulf of Sidra incident.
Third, US threats and efforts to isolate Libya damage American trade and business. The European Airbus consortium, not Boeing, got Libya's recent order for commercial aircraft. Libya wanted and paid for Boeings but the US government prohibited the sale.
Because of growing political interference in trade, foreign buyers will naturally seek other more reliable trade partners. The Europeans, especially, have made foreign trade a lodestar of their international affairs in light of what they see as a diminishing Soviet threat.Over $1 billion in foreign construction projects is now underway in the city of Tripoli alone.
In response to US hostility, Libya has apparently halted the flow of new students to American universities. The decision will hurt the American balance of payments, but more important it will eliminate what sympathy and understanding America could export in the minds of these students. As for oil, the international glut will not last forever. The US seems to be begging Qaddafi to use the oil weapon.
Finally, by rigidifying a hostile relationship with Libya, the US further locks itself into supporting Israeli foreign policy. There is no alternative. The stereotype of good Israel vs. bad Arabs is being maintained in the minds of the US public, press, and Congress, leaving no moral justification for an independent US policy. Israel knows this and so continues its unilateralism. It is the road to war.
One does not have to admire Libya's training of foreign guerrillas, its close military relationship with the Soviets, its blood purge of its own dissidents abroad, or its intervention in Chad. But one should not support a US foreign policy that encourages this very behavior. American policy will continue to boomerang as long as ignorance of Libyan history is its foundation.