There was quite a tempest in Washington over last weekend, with Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya again playing the role of villain. Washington sent AWACS planes to Egypt to monitor the air space over Libya and keep a wary eye on whatever the colonel might be doing with his own aircraft. It also sent the world's biggest aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, along the Libyan coast to back up any action which might seem necessary.
There is little room for doubt that the colonel was up to something. The facts are blurred. What we do know would seem to suggest that he had planned a coup d'etat in Khartoum, capital of the Sudan. His agents inside Khartoum would, we guess, try to topple the existing government there. A new regime would ask for Libyan support. Libyan planes would fly in the necessary troops to back up the new regime.
Whatever he was planning failed. By Monday US Secretary of State George Shultz was quoted as saying that the colonel is ''back in his box.''
Colonel Qaddafi has pursued a lively foreign policy during most of his time in control of Libya. He rose to power in a quick revolution in 1969 which toppled King Idris. By 1973 he was sufficiently in control, and had sufficiently built his military power, to be able to seize a northern strip of Chad, his neighbor to the south. He has kept the strip ever since.
From 1977 to 1979 he had Libyan troops fighting in Chad, usually against French or French-supported forces. But he also employed French mercenaries, as well as American, some of the time.
In 1979 he sent a substantial force of his troops into Uganda to try to save the discredited and discreditable regime of Idi Amin.
From 1973 to this day he has been a center of active Arab hostility toward Israel.
During all this time he has had a mixed relationship with the United States. Several thousand US oil company experts have been in Libya helping develop his extremely profitable oil industry. Many are still there and favor good relations with Libya.
The CIA has been mixed up in his activities. Some of the ''terrorist'' operations which emanated from Libyan bases were done by men trained and armed by ex-CIA agents. His help was sought by President Carter when Iran seized the staff of the American Embassy in Tehran and held them as hostages. The Reagan administration contended that he once sent a ''hit squad'' to try to assassinate top Washington officials, including President Reagan.
The US at present boycotts his high-grade oil, but other Western countries buy it freely. The US also refuses to sell him weapons or aircraft. But other Western countries still sell to him freely.
He buys weapons from the Soviets and from other East European communist countries. But he also buys from Italy, France, Britain, and Argentina.
Soviet ships have paid ''courtesy calls'' at his harbors, but he has not allowed the Soviets to use his air bases or naval ports for their own regular military operations. He is fiercely anticommunist at home. He ferrets out and eliminates any communist his police locate. He claims to be nonaligned and professes to want good relations with the US.
The one consistent and central feature in his foreign policy has been hostility to Israel. For a fuller explanation of this and of the man one should consult a recently published book, ''Libyan Sandstorm,'' written by John K. Cooley, a former correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor now working for ABC News.
According to Mr. Cooley, the crucial point in Colonel Qaddafi's foreign policy came in 1974 when Egypt signed its first disengagement agreement with Israel. The colonel never forgave Egyptian President Sadat for having abandoned the anti-Israel cause, or the US for having arranged that agreement which, in his eyes, cleared the way for Israel's subsequent territorial expansion.
Colonel Qadaffi presides over a large country (larger than Alaska) with a small population, just over 3 million. His development of Libyan oil has made his people rich. The per capita annual income is over $8,000. The US stands at a little under $10,000. He has virtually eliminated poverty and rehoused most of the population out of oil profits. He is a ruthless tyrant who kills his real or imagined enemies without hesitation. He is a fanatic Muslim.
The evidence would seem to indicate that he hopes someday to overthrow the existing moderate regimes of the Sudan and Egypt and lead a fundamentalist Islamic bloc of North African states in a crusade against Israel. He also has enemies in Khartoum, which has become the center for anti-Qaddafi exiles from Libya.
We have not heard the last of him.