IT's customary for visiting Western dignitaries, before meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi at his compound in Tripoli, to tour the bomb-pocked presidential house where his infant daughter was killed in a surgical airstrike ordered by United States President Reagan in April 1986. The US raid was in response to Libya's alleged responsibility for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub, which killed one American marine and wounded several others. The house, preserved as a museum, doubles as Colonel Qadda fi's living monument to what he calls American imperialism and aggression.
Qaddafi typically receives visitors on the lawn some 300 yards from the house in a large but inauspicious tent indicative of his Bedouin heritage. It was there, four years ago, that Qaddafi told me of his desire for better relations with the US. I had traveled to Libya via car from Tunis with the then-chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa and Libya's ambassador to the United Nations.
Although entry into Libya was contrary to US law, our self-appointed mission was to convince Qaddafi that he should stop sending arms to Liberian rebels through the tiny central-African country of Burkina Faso. We also advised him that if he wanted to normalize relations with the West, he had to resolve the Pan-Am dispute, cease support for terrorists, and soften his anti-American rhetoric. He never addressed the Pan-Am matter in our discussions, but in a somber, soft-spoken tone, Qaddafi admitted that although his diplomatic overtures had consistently been rebuffed, he wanted very much to resolve his differences with the US.
Today, Qaddafi is within reach of being able to do just that. Libya is making a surprisingly credible and well-organized bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
As the sole and unanimous candidate of the 51-member Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Union of African Parliamentarians, Libya is seeking to fill one of the ''African'' seats on the Security Council. Five of the 10 nonpermanent memberships are rotated out every year, and with Nigeria and Rwanda departing in 1996, a North African country is in line to fill one of the positions. The UN charter requires that temporary members be chosen, among other considerations, with regard to their contributi on to the maintenance of international peace and security. Traditionally, the African Group at the UN chooses its candidate based on seniority and regional balance. Libya meets both criteria.
Predictably, the US, Britain, and France - all permanent members of the Security Council - shudder at the prospect of Libya's membership in the UN's exclusive 15-member club. Campaigning to muster one-third of the UN General Assembly votes to block Libya's bid has begun in earnest. Horse-trading of international proportions is under way. Classically, Libya's candidacy is turning out to be another issue that falls along North-South lines.
The West is expected to lean heavily on its traditional allies around the world to stand against Libyan membership. Some sub-Saharan African states are openly debating the merits of voting against the US at a time when Western donors are retrenching from international engagement and imposing stringent conditions on foreign aid. While their hearts may be with Libya, their pocketbooks ultimately may decide their allegiances. Pivotal to the ultimate outcome are the Arab states, some of which do not relish having the government of Colonel Qaddafi as the only Arab representative on the Security Council. Depending on Qaddafi's persuasiveness, their reticence could be tempered by other political realities.
Like the so-called ''moderate Arab states,'' Qaddafi is no longer a friend of Islamic extremists. Over the past five years, Qaddafi has acted with the same equanimity as the leaders of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt in refusing to succumb to a growing strain of Islamic extremism. Qaddafi's adept disposition of the internal Islamic threat to his self-styled socialist republic has earned him high marks from the region's leaders and the respect of his adversaries - all except the US, Britain, and Fra nce.
Though ill-advised, Libya's recent expulsion of Sudanese and Palestinian workers is indicative of Qaddafi's growing concern over the slightest hint of extremism - although the Palestinians could have been expelled because he was unhappy with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's capitulation in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Nevertheless, Qaddafi claims to be fighting the ''good fight'' against extremism, while attempting to keep his toe-hold in the Arab world.
It is too early to tell whether the Libyan bid for the Security Council will be successful, but if Qaddafi wants warmer relations, he has to address the issues that are most vexatious to the West, including the following:
* Supporting and exporting terrorism. According to the Department of State and the National Security Council, Libya is a rogue state engaged in state-sponsored international terrorism. While Qadaffi's reforms and rhetoric were encouraging to Islamic extremists in the past, extremists recently have challenged Qaddafi's own leadership in Libya. His strong rebuke of extremism in Libya became a bellwether of his opposition to the expansion of international terrorism by extremists in the region. After signin g an anti-extremism cooperation agreement with Algeria, Qaddafi has readily extradited known terrorists. Recently, he sought to expand his anti-extremist efforts beyond the Arab world by refusing to sell arms to the Irish Republican Army and by seeking membership in a Mediterranean security group - a move blocked by European states.
* Refusal to extradite the Pan-Am Lockerbie suspects. UN and US sanctions against Libya are based on the prevailing view that Qaddafi refuses to hand over the two Libyan suspects accused of bombing Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In response, Libya has proposed several options for trying the Lockerbie suspects. Many UN member states believe that Libya's offers to extradite the suspects to a neutral country for trial or its offer to submit them to the International Court of Justice at The Ha gue to be tried under Scottish law by Scottish judges, are entirely reasonable. The West has consistently rejected these two proposals.
* Pursuing nuclear-arms program. Recently, the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan reportedly sold uranium to Libya, and speculation has emerged as to whether Qaddafi has revived its nuclear-weapons program. Libya remains a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and Kazakstan denies the sale. It is entirely likely that the recent sale was to provide highly enriched uranium for the country's 10 megawatt-thermal light water reactor in Tarouz near Tripoli - something completely permiss ible under international law.
Whatever the outcome of Libya's effort to join the Security Council, the very possibility presents difficult choices for the US. One issue that should be of vital concern to the West is the security and stability of the North African region. If Qaddafi's regime is replaced by an extremist Islamic government in Libya, the internal and external security of each country in the region will be in jeopardy.
Although contrarian in the past, Qaddafi is at least a known entity. The US must question whether it is better off with the quirkiness of a Qaddafi-led Libya it knows or with an extremist-dominated Libya it does not know. The answer to that question not only should guide the American vote on Libya's Security Council bid, but also should govern the US approach to Libya altogether.
In light of the new and disquieting realities in the region, the stakes are much higher than whether the US can bear to share the Security Council chambers with Libya.