THE time is ripe for exploiting the Pan Am Flight 103 incident to further United States aims in the Middle East. As a result of the strong international reaction to Libya's alleged bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, Col. Muammar Qaddafi is sending out feelers to the West that he might be willing to make a deal in exchange for relinquishing the two suspected perpetrators.
Because of Westerners' limited contacts with Libyans and the severe restrictions on visitors' travel, few outsiders understand the internal dynamics of that authoritarian state. Thus articles that appeared in June in the Libyan press, criticizing Colonel Qaddafi, have caused a commotion among Middle East experts. Is it possible that Qaddafi's total control over the media is slipping and that people have enough courage to speak out against him? Or is this episode designed to play out with an eventual wave
of accolades for Qaddafi from the Libyan people?
Qaddafi has become increasingly isolated by the strong multilateral response to the Pan Am 103 incident. Moreover, his meddling with Sudan has alienated Islamic groups. Within Libya, Qaddafi has asked his people to tolerate steadily more deprivation as international sanctions severely bite into their monthly wages. Surely the Libyans do not have endless patience with Qaddafi's impulsive leadership.
In the context of the Arab world, Libyans have reason to be proud of their heritage. Libya had a functioning democracy from 1952 to 1969, based on a constitution written by the United Nations. Also, Libyans were still fighting foreign imperialists (Italians) long after Egypt and India had succumbed to foreign rule. Given this heritage, many Libyans may wish for something more than a perilous future under Qaddafi.
One of the few cards Qaddafi can still play is nationalism. In the Pan Am 103 affair, most Libyans, while perhaps shamed by Qaddafi's involvement with terrorist groups, are unwilling to extradite two fellow citizens to face trial in a foreign country. The international response to the terrorism incident and to Libya's complicity has undoubtedly hurt Qaddafi. But by playing the nationalist card, he hopes to turn a trick in his favor. There are even rumors among Libyan exiles that Qaddafi has been hurt eno ugh by this affair to strike a deal with the West, turning over the two purported masterminds behind the Pan Am bombing in exchange for no further prosecutions. The problem with this rumored solution is that it leaves Qaddafi in power.
A different approach should be considered. Why not disarm Qaddafi by agreeing to his position that the two implicated security officials face trial in Libya, on the condition that it be in an independent court backed by a freely elected government? Of course, Qaddafi would not agree to his own demise, but a strong public pronouncement to this effect would send a clear signal to Libyans that the international community's quarrel is with Qaddafi, not with the Libyan people.
If and when Qaddafi is thrown from power, the Libyan people will remember that the US took a principled stance when it mattered most. Making that stand now has much more credibility than after a new government is installed and is fending off oil suitors. It is also a "no-lose proposition," costing nothing more than a few words, since we gain political credibility, good will, and perhaps one day a stable ally in the Middle East.