The present round of trouble between President Reagan in Washington and Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya is nothing new. It is one more incident in a series which dates from the Ford administration, quieted down somewhat during the Carter years, and flared up again early in the Reagan administration.
The immediate issue is Colonel Qaddafi's support for the current rebellion in Chad, but behind Mr. Reagan's second naval sortie into the Gulf of Sidra and his dispatch of two AWACS with supporting aircraft to Sudan are two particular issues.
On the American side is the worry that Colonel Qaddafi might, in an East-West crisis, allow the Soviets to use his airfields in Libya and thus make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for the United States to maintain a military presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
On the Libyan side is resentment against the US for its continued support of Israel.
The two intermesh.
Colonel Qaddafi, who is a devout, fundamentalist Muslim is also an Arab.
The one continuing, consistent theme during his spectacular and often erratic performance on the world stage has been his hostility to Israel. To him Israel is an alien invasion of Arab lands. He dreams, out loud, of a mighty Arab coalition driving the Jews out of Palestine.
His relations between the two superpowers, US and USSR, have been dominated by his and their attitudes toward Israel.
In the beginning of his rule in Libya (Sept. 1, 1969) his hero was President Anwar al Sadat of Egypt. Colonel Qaddafi courted President Sadat, sought a union between their two countries, virtually begged the Egyptian to take over Libya. But he did so on the assumption that President Sadat was an implacable foe of Israel, which indeed he was through the 1973 war. But after the 1973 war President Sadat moved away from Moscow and toward Washington and then made peace with Israel at Camp David in 1979.
John K. Cooley, leading authority on the Qaddafi story, wrote in his recent book about Qaddafi:
''Sadat's rapprochement with the United States and the beginning of his journey toward peace with Israel was the crucial turning point in Qaddafi's slow but seemingly inexorable course toward a future strategic link with Moscow.''
It started in January of 1974 when Henry Kissinger persuaded Egypt to sign a military disengagement agreement with Israel. To Colonel Qaddafi that was a betrayal of the Arab cause. He immediately began to tone down his ideological difference with Moscow. He ended up selling oil to Soviet-bloc countries and buying large quantities of Soviet arms with the proceeds.
Wheelus airfield, in Libya, was once a major link in the system of air bases which the US built up after World War II to sustain its military position in the Middle East. Wheelus Field was turned over to the Libyan government in 1970. Soviet aircraft have tested out its runways since then.
The Pentagon has studied possibilities of taking over Libya, partly to get control of the oil fields, partly to regain use of the air bases. The Pentagon, naturally, views with alarm any tendency by Colonel Qaddafi, to expand his holdings in Africa.
Colonel Qaddafi would particularly like to get hold of Sudan partly because anti-Qaddafi Libyans tend to congregate in its capital, Khartoum, and have hatched many a plot there for the assassination or overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. Chad is on his way to Sudan.
It seems unlikely that he will get the whole of Chad this time. The French, reluctant but prodded from Washington, seem in effect to be saying that Libya can probably have northern Chad which is Arab in speech and culture, but not southern Chad which is black Africa. The French are not as worried about Colonel Qaddafi as is Washington. Western Europe continues to buy his high grade oil. The US officially boycotts it, but some gets in anyway.
President Reagan challenged Colonel Qaddafi during Mr. Reagan's first year in office. The date was Aug. 19, 1981. The President sent a US Navy task force into the Gulf of Sidra. In an aerial dogfight two Libyan planes were shot down.
Colonel Qaddafi buys weapons from Moscow. He also buys from NATO countries in Western Europe, when he can. His suppliers seem to let him buy short-range weapons at will, but he has difficulty getting long-range types, even from the Soviets. He would presumably change sides if Moscow supported Israel and the US opposed. His abiding hostility is toward Israel.