''THERE is no comparison between the behavior of Libya and the behavior of the British, because we are civilized and they are barbaric, as is America.'' So proclaimed Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, when commenting upon Britain's explusion of his agents from London.
Despite the wrongheadedness of Colonel Qaddafi's outburst, it is too simple to dismiss him or his regime as ''mad'' or merely obsessed by paranoia. Accepting such an easy explanation, even if true in some part, underestimates the serious nature of the Libyan problem and the importance of coping internationally with a modern verison of Barbary piracy.
A charismatic fundamentalist, Colonel Qaddafi originally came to power at the head of a set of military modernizers who were anxious to end the corruption of the regime of an aging, old-fashioned monarch. They also sought to return Libya to the purified religious fundamentalism of the king's 18th-century forebears.
To strengthen his own hand internally and to increase the legitimacy of his government, Qaddafi sought arms and stature by flirting with the Soviets and bidding for radical leadership within the Arab and Muslim fraternity. Rebuffed because of his buccaneering personal style and his unwillingness to accept the leadership of wealthier and larger Arab-speaking countries, Colonel Qaddafi turned to solo adventurism.
He forged an alliance with Gen. Idi Amin's dictatorship in Uganda but saw that collapse and Libya suffer a military defeat after the Tanzania invasion of 1979. He tried, and continues to try, to subvert and, at times, attack the fellow Arab military government of the Sudan.
Under him, Libya became a major force in neighboring Chad; today, Libya occupies a third of Chad, including a uranium-rich strip along Libya's southern border. Only the presence of French troops in central Chad prevents a Libyan-backed conquest of the whole country.
Libya has been accused of giving aid to the Polisario anti-Moroccan guerrilla movement in the Western Sahara, of attempting to subvert French-speaking Niger, of organizing dissidents against next-door Tunisia, and periodically of massing troops against western Egypt.
Several times in recent years, Egypt has mobilized in fear of Libyan invasion. The United States on two occasions has lent Egypt and the Sudan AWACS surveillance aircraft to keep a radar eye on Libyan air activities.
The catalog of Libyan opportunism goes on and on. They even tried to put money into and gain some control over the tiny Indian Ocean island republic of the Seychelles. They tried to back a coup in the Comoros, also in the Indian Ocean. Now, Qaddafi is threatening to retaliate against Britain by helping the Irish Republican Army. He calls it a ''just cause.''
The embassy imbroglio last month in London was not directly a part of Qaddafi's campaign of international intrigue and terrorism. Instead, it was intimately related to the flip side of his regime's strength at home. Like so many governments bolstered by coercion rather than by popularity, Qaddafi's cult of personality and demands for blind personal obedience have alienated at least the technically trained and educated elite. Opposition from this group and from military officers have led to purges and to increasing anxiety on the part of Qaddafi.
In order to quash dissidence Colonel Qaddafi has ruthlessly sent ''hit squads'' to pursue his opponents everywhere. Students and others were attacked in the US (until the Libyan Embassy was closed in 1981), in France, in Italy, and in Britain.
The US has imposed sanctions on Libya. It forbids strategic exports to Libya. It boycotts the purchase of Libyan oil. It encouraged the withdrawal of Exxon from oil exploitation in Libya. At a time of world oil glut, such actions have helped diminish Libya's yearly income from 1980 to 1983 from $22 to $10 billion.
The US wants Europe to follow its lead and impose sanctions of their own. But it is less easy for Europe to do without Libyan oil. Britain has 8,000 workers in Libya, mostly in the oil fields. France and Italy export insignificant amounts to Libya. The US and France have been actively trying to contain Libya by giving military and economic assistance to Libya's neighbors.
More could be done, but there is no easy answer to the Libyan problem. It took years in the last century to extirpate the Barbary pirates and, short of deciding for the Libyans themselves who they should have as a leader, the only possible, dissatisfying course, is for those who buy and sell from Libya to do as little as they can, and for Libyan dissidents to be protected.
Most important, especially immediately, is for the US to encourage official Saudi efforts to curb Qaddafi's pursuit of his opponents and for the countries of Europe to end the diplomatic status of Libyan missions which give cover and immunity to the Libyan ''hit squads."Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science and history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.