The military clash between the United States and Libya has put much of the Arab world in an excruciatingly uncomfortable position. Libya and its radical leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, are unpopular with most Arab regimes. Moderate Arab states dislike Libya's support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war and Colonel Qaddafi's penchant for aiding radical causes in the region.
But a US attack on any Arab state is unpopular with every Arab regime. So the Arab states feel it necessary to condemn the Americans' action.
With the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in disarray and oil prices plummeting, several Arab states are experiencing severe economic problems. This fact, along with the heating up of the Iran-Iraq war, led Western observers in the Arab world to speculate Tuesday that Arab reaction to the reality of a US attack on Libyan targets will be confined to rhetorical condemnation.
The Reagan administration's position is that US strikes against Libyan patrol boats and a missile site Monday were defensive -- made only after Libya fired six missiles at US planes over the Gulf of Sidra. The US says its military exercises in the Gulf of Sidra are designed to reaffirm that it is part of international waters. Libya holds that the entire Gulf falls within Libyan territorial waters.
Regardless of the reasons the US gives, the consensus in the Arab world is that the American action was aggressive and further proves the US's anti-Arab bent.
``Despite the fact that we reject Qaddafi's stands and policies towards Arab countries in general and the [Iran-Iraq] war in particular, we consider the American exercises as a provocative action against an Arab land, coming from a superpower,'' editorialized Al-Dustour, an Arabic daily in Amman.
In January, the Arab League condemned US threats against Libya, issued after terrorist attacks at Rome and Vienna airports in December. The US accuses Libya of supporting the Palestinian terrorists who allegedly carried out the attack.
Even countries normally hostile to Libya, such as Jordan and Egypt, expressed support for Libya at the time. But Libya failed to persuade the League to impose economic sanctions against the US.
Jordan's position is particularly awkward. Jordan broke off diplomatic ties with Libya in 1984, after a mob burned down the Jordanian Embassy in Tripoli. A Jordanian official said Tuesday that Jordan is against any act of aggression against any Arab state. Just last week, the Arab Interparliamentary Union met here and voted 9 to 4 to postpone considering Libya's application for admission to the Union. The Libyan delegation that arrived to argue Libya's case for admission was intercepted at the airport and kept waiting at a hotel outside Amman until after the vote. The Libyans were then hustled onto the first flight to Syria.
``Basically, the parliamentarians said some nice things about Libya while kicking it in the rump,'' one observer said.
But, diplomats here say, any American military action against an Arab regime exacerbates growing anti-American sentiment among the Arabs and at least temporarily enhances Qaddafi's position.
``On one level, you will always get virtually knee-jerk support of a brother Arab country that is being aggressed,'' a Western diplomat says. ``But there is no love lost between . . . Jordan and Libya.''
``The feelings toward Libya are complex,'' the diplomat adds. ``This sort of American action tends to arouse a bit of sympathy for Qaddafi, and in that sense is counterproductive from the American standpoint if the goal is to isolate Libya within the Arab context. But then, what does Washington care about the Arab context?''