Strutting across the Moscow airport tarmac six months back, Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi resembled nothing so much as an adolescent prankster auditioning as Field Marshal Montgomery in a school play.
He looks younger than his 39 years. His eyes glimmer. Out on that tarmac, he wore dress-tan military garb. The swagger stick clutched in his left hand was a particularly nice touch.
Leonid Brezhnev, greetin him in a somber greatcoat and homburg, looked like precisely what he was: a man of a different world and a different era, summoning the requisite half-smile for this puzzling partner in a marriage of convenience.
Muammar Qaddafi has an enormous arsenal of Soviet weaponry. but he is not a Soviet puppet, or, to borrow a phrase fashionable in Washington nowadays, a "Kremlin proxy." Though unarguably subversive, he is not the superman of subversion the Americans sometimes make him out to be. If he is dangerous, both Washington and Moscow are doing their parts to make him much more so.
The Libyan leader has become a perilously uncertain centerpiece in a US-Soviet test of wills over the Mideast.
It is against this background that Washington announced Oct. 14 it was sending two sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes to Egypt, amid reports of skirmishes on the border between Sudan, Egypt's ally, and Libyan-occupied Chad.
The Soviets said promptly that this action presaged an attack on Libya. They also printed what amounted to a message of solidarity with Libya from Ethiopia, base for an estimated 2,000 Soviet advisers and some 12,000 Cuban troops.
This could all turn out to be the 20th-century equivalent of saber rattling. But if it doesn't, the real danger is not simply that Libya and Sudan may go to war. Left to itself, such a conflict could well follow the pattern of Libya's brief, small-scale border war with Egypt in 1977, a showdown the Egyptians won without too much fuss.
The problem is that the Mideast has changed since then, and so has the superpowers' place in its politics. Egypt's Anwar Sadat, a few months after his spat with Colonel Qaddafi, flew off to make peace with Israel. The negotiating process both isolated him and increasingly polarized the region.
Iran toppled its pro-US Shah. Moscow sent troops into neighboring Afghanistan. The Americans began trying to piece together an anti-Soviet alliance that would include the Saudis, Israelis, and Egyptians. This disn't fully work (even moderate Arabs opposed Egypt's still-separate peace with Israel) but did serve to nudge some less moderate Arabs a little closer to Moscow.
Ronald Reagan took up the ball with a vengeance, while also lending the US strategy an increasingly anti-Libyan tilt. US officials accused Moscow of a fondness for "terrorists" like Colonel Qaddafi. Libyan diplomats were kicked out of Washington. A US fleet challenged Libyan's claim to the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean and downed two (Soviet-made) Libyan planes in the process.
The administration also berated Moscow -- lectured, as the soviets saw it -- on its behavior in the third world. This behavior, and the behavior of "proxies" like Libya, were presented as an important determinant in overall superpower relations.
Whatever the political pros and cons of this strategy, the practical result has been to give each wuperpower more reason than they might otherwise have had for involvement -- or at least a feint at involvement -- in any SudaneseLibyan conflict. Sudan's Jaafar Nimiery, who says the Libyans have been bombing his frontier area for some time, has begun talking as if he is ready for war. Whether Washington can rein him in, or wants to, remains to be seen.
As for Colonel Qaddafi, more than a few Western and Arab diplomats here suspect that should be decide to go to war, the Soviets would not be able to stop him even should they want to.
The man who has steered the desert state of Libya since a bloodness coup in 1969 is hard to figure out, all the more so theough the alternate accusations and overestimations piled on him from abroad.
There can be little doubt that he has funded terrorists in places like Noethern Ireland, West Germany, and Japan. He has ordered Libyan opponents gunned down abroad.HE is a dictator, although he formally renounced all official titles after declaring a people's republic in the spring of 1977. While in Moscow, he canceled the traditional reception of resident ambassadors on the grounds that he was not a head of state.
He has also parlayed Libyan oil wealth into grandiose development schemes and a huge mass of Soviet arms. HE has purchased at least several billion dollars' worth of Soviet tanks, planes, missiles and other weaponry since coming to power. He rules the largest per-capita tank power in the world.
But he has not, at leat so far, built that state into a superpower even on a regional scale. He periodic bids for fusion with various Arab states have so far failed. On the eve of the 1973 Mideast war, he went so far as to stage a 50 ,000-string "people's march" toward Cairo to press for such a pact with Mr. Sadat.
The civilian army was turned back some 200 miles short of its destination by Egyptian troops and railroad-car road-blocks. "Enthusiasm and emotional impulses, alone," scoffed Mr. Sadat, "are not sufficient basis for unity."
Colonel Qaddafi's periodic military sallies, too, have generally failed. Sophisticated jet fighters aren't much use without pilots trained to fly them. Colonel Qaddafi lacks them, althougj that could change should Soviet-bloc experts in his country or neighboring ones decide to give him an active hand against, for instance, the Sudanese.
The colonel's one military success came late last year when he intervened in a civil war in neighboring Chad.Western military experts see that victory more as a measure of his foes' weakness than of his own strength.
The fighting in Chad, meanwhile, continues. Published Western estimates say 1,000 Libyan troops have already died there. With Egyptian and Sudanese help, anti-Libyan forces have been getting feistier. The war is also expensive and, coupled with Libyan revenues sharply decreased during the current world oil glut , has reportedly forced Qaddafi to cut back on ambitious economic projects at home.
There was a reported coup attempt in Libya in August 1980. An unidentified US official has been quoted by the New York Times as saying opponents of Colonel Qaddafi tried to shoot down his plane as he returned from his visit this April to Moscow, but that the plot failed.
In the literal sense of the word, Qaddafi if a Soviet ally. He has publicly hinted at becoming a closer one in the wake of his dogfight with US planes. But the Soviets -- and even parties like Ethiopia, with which he and Marxist South Yemen signed a treaty in August -- don't really trust him. "One should not forget that Colonel qaddafi is a Muslim fanatic, with all that implies," a senior Soviet official remarked privately after the Libyan leader's visit here.
He does buy a lot of Soviet arms. HE bought more, soviet sources say, earlier this year. He does seve Soviet interests, just as Soviet arms serve his own. He pays in hard currency, which Moscow needs. And both he and the Soviets don't like "US imperialism."
But he also sells oil to the US. He has a reported soft spot for sophisticated Western gadgetry. His ideal is to create a powerful Islamo-Arab people's alliance well beyond his borders and he has always been fundamentally an idealist, if not always in the best sense of the word.