Bearding Qaddafis in their den

France and the Organization of African Unity are giving the world a good lesson in how to deal with quixotic leaders having great-power ambitions. In this case the leader is Colonel Qaddafi of Libya and his ambition is a political union of Libya and Chad. If the French and OAU diplomacy succeeds, Qaddafi may feel frustrated, but he will have a graceful way out of his dilemma.

This is not the first time France has played a quietly constructive role in Africa. It did so at the time of border hostilities in Zaire, for example. On this occasion it has promised to provide economic and some military aid to Chad and to assist an OAU peacekeeping force to replace the Libyans there by the end of the year. Nigeria, Senegal, and Ivory Coast are reported to have offered troops.

To see the leaders of Africa themselves assuming responsibility for dangerous encroachments on the continent is especially encouraging. It points to a growing maturity and sophistication. In the case of Qaddafi, the OAU deftly agreed at its recent meeting in Nairobi to let him host the next conference of the OAU - but warned of a boycott of the meeting if he did not behave in the interim.

Colonel Qaddafi thus stands to lose in the OAU if he does not heed Chad President Woddei's call for withdrawal of the 10,000 Libyan troops stationed in his country. But he should be able to do so without intolerable loss of face. He was, after all, invited into Chad, even though this happened to suit his own imperial purposes. Now that a viable alternative to peacekeeping is taking shape - and the Libyan troops did reduce the wanton killing in Chad and help stabilize the country - there will be no further excuse for the presence of Libyan soldiers.

To keep up pressure on him, the OAU must move ahead vigorously with formation of a pan-African force. Its resolve - or lack of it - will determine the outcome of the drama. Meanwhile France - and the United States as well - is showing that skillful diplomacy is superior to strident rhetoric in bearding Qaddafis in their den.

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