U.S.-Libyan relations have come "pretty darn close" to war, Secretary of State George Shultz said recently. In 1981, just four months into office, President Reagan closed Libya’s embassy in Washington, citing Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s support for international terrorism. Shortly afterward, U.S. navy jets shot down two Libyan warplanes after being fired upon by them. American pressure reached dramatic intensity last April 15 with the bombing raid on Qaddafi’s headquarters and home in Tripoli. Later, some officials sought to destabilize Qaddafi with deliberate plants of disinformation.

If the ouster of Qaddafi has not been the Administration’s avowed goal, it clearly has become a virtual obsession. "If a coup takes place, that is all to the good," said Shultz in April, in a rare example of an American cabinet official in effect advocating the overthrow of another government. At the core of the Administration’s pressure on Qaddafi is a belief that, by dealing with him, the United States will lead the Western world in dealing a fatal blow to the promoters of international terrorism.

Indeed, the April 1986 raid on Libya brought a lull in Arab-related terrorism. And the governments of Western Europe, scarcely supportive of the American show of force, nevertheless imposed sanctions, in part to placate the Americans. The sanctions prompted the departure of more than 600 Libyans from Western Europe, thus dismantling a logistical network for terror.

But developments since the bombing raid have raised questions about the effectiveness of American policy. Inside Libya Qaddafi overcame what many around him said was a state of depression. After the raid he reemerged in public on September 1 with a forceful speech celebrating his 17th anniversary in power. He began the speech "America is filth." The next day he defied predictions of a coup by sitting openly in an armchair reviewing a military parade for more than one hour.

The lull in terrorism was short-lived. In September terrorists seized a Pan American plane in Karachi, shot up a synagogue in Istanbul and went on a bombing spree in Paris. Some American officials saw a Libyan hand in Karachi. But there was no definitive proof, and the focus of international pressures shifted to other promoters of terrorism.

Not only is Qaddafi back, he is back with a difference. Distrustful in the past of the Soviet Union, Qaddafi is now calling for an ever closer alignment of Libya with Moscow—a prospect that raises questions about the wisdom of U.S. policy. West Europeans, at least, fear closer Soviet-Libyan ties even more than Libyan support for terrorism. The Soviets had not come to Libya’s aid during or after the April bombing raid, but now the possibility exists that Qaddafi will grant Moscow’s strategists just the foothold in the Mediterranean that has long eluded them.

The main problem in Washington seems to be that the goals of stopping Libyan-sponsored terrorism and overthrowing Qaddafi have become confused. The Libyan colonel has become such a symbol of terrorism to the United States that it has lost sight of practical realities. Pressing Qaddafi can curb some terrorism—but only some. Pressing hard to overthrow him is even more problematic. A look inside Libya reveals it may be neither necessary in the long run nor advisable in the short run. For who would replace Qaddafi is an open question, and the possible answers are hardly encouraging.


Without terrorism, Libya would not draw much attention. Though about one-fifth the physical size of the United States, the country is almost all desert. Its entire population is only about three million—about that of greater Houston.

Libyans did not even think of themselves as a nation until independence in 1951. Historically they were members of tribes grouped in three general regions—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica on the coast and Fezzan in the south—whose land had been marched through by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks and, finally, Italians. Invading in 1911, Italy amalgamated the territory in a costly venture. The nomadic tribes fought back in a brutal war that lasted more than a decade. Aid sent by Arabs to support the struggle against the Italians partly explains the continuing strong pan-Arab sentiment of Qaddafi and many Libyans today. At the same time, Italy remains the European country with the greatest cultural influence in Libya.

U.S. influence was a key factor in shaping the new nation. The British and the French occupied the colony after the defeat of the Italians in World War II. American lobbying in the United Nations helped defeat a move by the European victors and the Soviet Union to carve up the area again. King Idris, the emir of Cyrenaica, had befriended the British during his exile in Egypt; they were instrumental in his elevation to leadership of a united Libya.

His position was hardly one to be envied. Decades of war had left the area so poor that the major export was World War II scrap metal. Distrusting political parties, Idris banned them from the beginning. He turned over much of the nation’s administration to locally powerful families, fostering rampant patronage and corruption while impeding national integration and maturation.

The United States and Britain provided critical aid and rents for military bases such as the gigantic U.S. Wheelus Air Force Base outside Tripoli. The discovery of oil in 1959 turned the economy around but exacerbated political problems. Corruption and the king’s pro-Western stance at a time of rising pan-Arab sentiment alienated Libyan youth. Colonel Qaddafi had popular support as he led a group of young army officers called the "free officers" in a bloodless 1969 coup overthrowing Idris.

Geographic fortune helped Qaddafi in his drive to power. The son of humble Bedouin nomads, he was born near Sidra, on the line between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. He was raised in the Fezzan oasis of Sabha. He thus to some extent bridged the frictions among the three regions. But his tribal loyalties remain; many of Qaddafi’s personal bodyguards come from his tribe, the Qaddafadam.

Though his age is disputed among observers, Qaddafi is thought to have been only 27 years old at the time of the coup; but he was politically driven since youth. He has said that he entered the Libyan military academy precisely in order to bring about political change. He was sent to train for four months in England, where he also pursued an interest in Western political philosophy, developing a liking for the utopians and anarcho-syndicalists. In the Arab world Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was his hero. Even today propaganda posters picture the young Qaddafi with Nasser.

Many have wondered: is Qaddafi mad? A megalomaniac? Otherwise respectable psychologists have tried to analyze him from afar. More reliable is what Qaddafi says about himself; he considers himself a visionary. While many of those around him are corrupt, Qaddafi by all accounts is not, making him the worst sort of dictator: a true-believing one.

What Qaddafi believes is a muddled mix of Nasserist nationalism, Western anarcho-syndicalism and Bedouin desert egalitarianism. He has set forth his truths, known collectively as the Third International Theory, in the Green Book, a slender volume quoted in Libya as Mao’s Red Book once was in China. Billed as an alternative to capitalism and communism, the Green Book program calls for the eventual abolition of government, private profit, mandatory schooling, representative democracy and the like, to achieve a utopian society. "Democracy is supervision of the people by the people" is a typical motto. "Freedom means that every human being gets that education which qualifies him for work which is appropriate to him" is characteristic of the book’s contradictory dictums.

Qaddafi’s vision extends beyond Libya’s borders. Believing he is a revolutionary world leader, he has compared himself to historical figures from Ché Guevara to Garibaldi. He has provided military and financial aid to governments as far afield as Nicaragua and to subversive groups as diverse as the Basque ETA, the Irish IRA and the Philippine Moros. Last March he hosted a convention of some 258 extremist political groups, which included even American Indian and Black Muslim representatives.

But much of this support has been a sideshow to his main area of interest: Africa and the Arab world. Though he calls himself the inheritor of Nasser’s pan-Arab mantle, Qaddafi has gone far beyond Nasser. He has at one time or another backed subversive groups in almost every other North African country. Among his deeds have been the 1984 mining of the Red Sea, the continued occupation of northern Chad and the sending of hit-and-run insurgents into Tunisia. His meddling has generally been in moderate states friendly to the West. He has singled out Egypt as a special target for having recognized Israel.

Backing Palestinian terrorist groups is especially important to his self-image. He has openly admitted to funding them, arming them and operating training camps for them in Libya. Qaddafi sees support of these groups as part of his pan-Arab mission to oppose any settlement with Israel, and indeed its very presence.

Since 1980, when he ordered a campaign to assassinate leaders of the Libyan exile community, Qaddafi has moved directly to carry out his own terrorism as well. The Libyan government has proudly acknowledged having killed more than a dozen of these "stray dogs." More recently Libya has also struck at several Western targets, including a West Berlin nightclub, the bombing of which prompted the American air raid. The number of such direct Libyan actions is small, however, and mercenaries are usually employed to do the actual dirty work.

Behind Qaddafi’s activism at home and abroad has been the financial freedom he has derived from oil. Qaddafi helped spearhead the great increase in world oil prices during the 1970s. Oil income allowed him to splurge in arms purchases at the rate of almost two billion dollars a year. According to the Institute for International Strategic Studies, Qaddafi’s 73,000-man military has 535 combat aircraft, among them 143 MiG-23 E’s and 55 Mig-25 A’s and U’s. His 20 tank battalions have 300 Soviet T-72 tanks and 2,500 lesser Soviet models. He has a variety of Soviet antiaircraft missiles, including three batteries of long-distance SAM-5s.

But despite his avowed radicalism, Qaddafi has been careful not to offend American and European oil companies, whose technology and skilled labor he needs. Except for the nationalization of British Petroleum in 1971—after he charged it with helping the shah of Iran in a Persian Gulf dispute—Qaddafi has cautiously negotiated the purchase of an average 60 percent of each foreign oil production company in Libya in making them joint ventures. The even more critical oil-field service companies have been altogether untouched.

Meanwhile, the majority of the Libyan people, overlooked and unconsulted, hardly seem to share in Qaddafi’s international designs. While popular sympathy for the Palestinians runs high, the depth of commitment of many Libyans, living far from the Israeli front, is questionable. Qaddafi’s involvement in areas such as the Caribbean is even more remote to them. Few Libyans seem to believe in terrorism. Some still refuse even to believe their government has been involved in it. A largely apolitical people, Libyans are in fact known among Arabs as wistfully peaceful, with little taste for fighting—in ironic counterpoint to their leader.

But Libyans by and large have not actively opposed Qaddafi’s foreign ventures. Until two years ago, the oil largesse allowed him to buy popular support through such genuine accomplishments as building houses, schools, roads and hospitals. A generous social welfare scheme guaranteed income. At the same time, his ability to tweak the nose of the West brought pride to a long downtrodden people. A repressive apparatus discouraged those who might dissent.

Recently the colonel’s fortunes have been changing. His Achilles’ heel is the world price of oil, and it has plummeted. Libyan oil income has dropped from a high of $22 billion a year in 1980 to an estimated $5 billion in 1986—and oil accounts for more than 99 percent of Libya’s export earnings. Libya has fallen in arrears on its foreign arms and construction contracts by an estimated $8 to $12 billion, much over two years old.

Qaddafi’s ambitious development programs have been thrown into disarray. A $4.2 billion Soviet nuclear power plant and more than $1 billion in housing and road projects have been canceled since mid-1985. Cranes are stilled on many projects as European and Asian contractors work on a go-slow basis, waiting to be paid. A foreign work force that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands has been sharply cut. About the only project going forward as planned is Qaddafi’s pet scheme, the "great man-made river," a mammoth undertaking to pump underground water from the desert to the coastal region.

Yet, in spite of these troubles, Qaddafi has pressed ahead with his iconoclastic revolution. In backhand ways, the declining fortunes of his twin assets—oil and a vision—have opened a window for American policy.


The United States’ disenchantment with Qaddafi did not start with President Reagan. Shortly after the 1969 coup the Nixon Administration blocked the sale of 12 C-130 military cargo planes to Libya. Arms, technology and trade embargoes were progressively extended by the Ford and Carter Administrations. Now little more than humanitarian and journalistic contacts are allowed under the terms of a January 1986 executive order requiring all American citizens to leave Libya.

The Administration deliberately set out to punish Qaddafi in March 1986 when ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet crossed the "Line of Death" drawn by Qaddafi in the Gulf of Sidra, which he claims as territorial waters. The claim has little historical basis or international recognition, but American officials have admitted that their intrusion was designed less to uphold international law than to provoke Qaddafi. It did. The Libyans attacked; the Sixth Fleet responded by sinking at least two Libyan patrol boats and hitting an antiaircraft missile site. The Libyan regime has never clarified how many Libyans died in the confrontation, but a memorial list posted inside the Benghazi naval barracks listed 72 drowned sailors; some Libyan naval officers have put the number much higher. No Americans were killed.

The April 15, 1986, air raid on Tripoli and Benghazi brought the hostilities to a peak. The raid came in announced retaliation for the death of an American soldier in a bomb blast at a Berlin discotheque. The Americans mounted an extraordinary operation in which planes flying from air fields in Britain were coordinated with others flying from carriers in the Mediterranean. The Libyan regime said that 36 civilians and one soldier were killed, but estimates based on burials around the country put the number of Libyan deaths, mostly military, between 50 and 100. One American F-111 jet was shot down and its two pilots killed. Eight bomb craters stretched out about 300 yards from just in front of the colonel’s house to the front of his office building. Qaddafi’s wife and two of his sons were injured, and an infant girl taken in by the family was reportedly killed. Qaddafi, in his underground bunker at the time of the bombing, escaped unharmed.

The Reagan Administration has since continued to apply more subtle military and covert pressure in hopes of provoking a Libyan coup. In addition to Sixth Fleet flybys and ship maneuvers within radar range off the Libyan coast, the Administration reportedly sponsored a disinformation campaign, outlined in an August 1986 memorandum to the President from his national security adviser, John M. Poindexter. False or exaggerated reports of internal dissent and opposition were advocated in order to unsettle Qaddafi psychologically. President Reagan said in a news conference that he wanted Qaddafi to "go to bed every night wondering what we might do."

Over the years the Central Intelligence Agency has maintained contacts with Libyan exiles and internal opposition groups. It has even flirted with backing coup attempts, though there is no public knowledge that it has ever attempted a coup operation. The CIA has also long been spreading rumors, or disinformation, but the Poindexter memo suggested a more directed and coordinated effort.

What has been the effect of this long record of American military, economic, diplomatic and covert pressures? Each had different short-term and long-term results. But the goals of stopping terrorism and overthrowing Qaddafi have not been met.


Qaddafi was still in power long after the bombing raid. Worse, the air raid, the jolt designed to provoke a coup, proved to have the opposite immediate effect of strengthening him vis-à-vis his rivals inside the government.

The Libyan government is so tightly closed and its officials so fearful or hostile about speaking that it is difficult to establish the details of internal political maneuverings with certainty. American officials complain that the amount of intelligence on Libya even inside the CIA is meager. Rumors abound, the wildest often repeated by diplomats and reported to their home governments.

Reports of coup attempts put out by American officials and some journalists in the first days after the American bombing now appear to have been ill founded and possibly ill intentioned. There have been no known purges or executions in the months since the bombing that would indicate a coup was attempted. Furthermore, if Qaddafi had been in danger of a coup, it is unlikely that he would have gone into near seclusion after the raid. Since his reemergence, he has mixed brazenly in public and even left the country for nearly a week to attend the Nonaligned Movement’s summit and visit Sudan.

That is not to say Qaddafi was not psychologically shaken by the raid. Always virtually paranoid about his personal security, he became even more so in the first months afterward because he feared another bombing or an American-backed assassin, according to members of his retinue. He abandoned his headquarters, the Bab al-Azzaziya barracks, and moved around the country in an armored bus. He faltered and his mind seemed to wander in the few taped speeches he made, though staff members said this was due largely to the strain of never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row.

Qaddafi’s continued rule has been ensured in large part because the military, the most likely source of any uprising, lost influence within the government after the April attack. At the same time Qaddafi’s loyal ideological shock troops, the "revolutionary committees," have been gaining power. The fall of the one and the rise of the other are a partial fruition of Qaddafi’s manipulations to entrench himself in power. While he has control for now, he still faces long-term threats.

There have long been frictions between Qaddafi and the military leaders. A number of coup attempts over the years have underlined the dissent inside the armed forces. In the last three years, moreover, discontent has been rising to new heights. It is due in part to the country’s declining economy, leading Qaddafi to freeze most promotions and end once generous commissary, housing and travel privileges. More than $700 million in military construction projects were canceled in 1985 alone. Meanwhile, the military has tired of the constant state of hostilities, not only with the United States, but also with France in Chad and with Tunisia and Egypt. Many officers question the cost in lives and money of maintaining several thousand troops in Chad, where they occupy the northern third of the country; in October Libyan troops even turned on Chadian rebel forces they were backing. Finally, as professionals, many officers especially resent Qaddafi’s plan to abolish the formal military hierarchy and replace it with a vaguely defined people’s militia that would be more ideological.

The discontent is said by numerous Libyans and foreigners close to the military to have taken an upward turn since August. That month Qaddafi demoted to colonel the army’s only two generals, Abu Bakr Jabber Younis, the commander in chief, and Mustafa Kharroubi, the inspector general. Several colonels were downgraded as well. At the same time Qaddafi carried out his plan to move the military’s general command headquarters. Over their loud objections, he forced the senior echelon of officers and their staffs to move to a headquarters complex constructed at Hun, a desert village roughly 300 miles southeast of Tripoli where water and amenities are scarce.

The reason Qaddafi has been able to treat the armed forces with such impunity is the revolutionary committees. To understand the committees is to understand how Qaddafi rules Libya.

The committees exist in every neighborhood and factory and government office. They are made up of loyal political zealots, many of them young, who act as informants and increasingly have come to supplant the police and the courts. They have also taken over the operations of some factories, offices and an airport. Some committee members are qualified professionals but others are mere patronage appointees or just thugs. Many ranking Libyan diplomats avoid postings abroad because the committees even run many embassies.

The committees also exist inside the military. There they are made up of loyalist soldiers of various ranks. While not always in the most senior positions, they are in many of the most critical positions, such as holding the keys to ammunition stockpiles. Their presence makes organization for a coup virtually impossible.

Qaddafi has also kept the military in line by skillfully rotating his commanders to keep any one from gathering power. The Libyan leader can be ruthless if some officer might still pose a threat. In November 1985 Colonel Hassan Ishkal, a powerful and popular troop commander, was shot and killed as he was on his way to voice some of the military’s complaints to Qaddafi. He was killed despite being a close cousin of Qaddafi. Questions over Qaddafi’s role in the murder and whether a coup led by Ishkal was in the works remain unanswered.

The military was thus already shackled at the time of the April bombing. The attack ruined any remaining chances of a military revolt. This was not because the Libyan masses rallied around Qaddafi, the underdog fighting the giant, as is often said. Rather, by failing in confronting the Americans, the armed forces were discredited and further demoralized. After the attack, there was no support for a coup.

The demotion of the two generals reflected the military’s declining stature and the revolutionary committees’ relative ascendance. Beyond this, since the bombing the committees have become a virtual parallel government. They have all but replaced the country’s formal, partially representative political structure of "people’s congresses," which are made up of government unions, professional associations and the like. While the congresses had little power, at least some complaints could be aired at their meetings. But over the past year their meetings have been fewer and poorly attended as the revolutionary committees have grown in power. During the September 1 festivities several thousand committee members from around the country met in Tripoli in a national convention, which issued the same sort of national policy declarations that the congresses had issued in the past. Qaddafi attended, basking in nearly 45 minutes of nonstop cheers and chants.

The rise of the committees is also seen in the rise of their leader. He is Major Abd al-Salam Jalloud, since Ishkal’s death clearly Libya’s number-two man. Jalloud, a sort of prime minister, took on the critical oil portfolio as well last spring. A childhood friend of Qaddafi, he is less abstemious and more pragmatic than Qaddafi, and very loyal. Speculation periodically arises whether Jalloud might have ambitions to replace his boss, but he is careful never to take a tack different from Qaddafi, prompting an Arab saying that the two are fingers of the same hand.

Qaddafi’s final assurance of power lies in the Revolutionary Command Council, a weak kind of junta. Once made up of 12 of the original coup leaders, it is now down to five. Most of the others have gone into exile abroad or political oblivion at home for having views different from Qaddafi’s. Among the five are Qaddafi and Jalloud, and the two demoted generals, Younis and Kharroubi. Neither of the latter two is considered personally forceful or politically ambitious. The fifth member is Major Akweldi Hamadi, who is often used as a diplomatic emissary. Hamadi also heads the popular military militia, a ragtag force of mostly students and elderly reserves.

While little is known about the personal views of the four members other than Qaddafi, the sum is a loyalist council that shares with him the interest of staying in power. Qaddafi himself admits to being bored with the day-to-day details of governing and so allows some debate within the council, at times letting it act on its own. Appropriating the title "the leader of the revolution," he paints himself as a guru overseeing the philosophical direction of the nation. By all accounts, however, he makes the big decisions himself.

Thus, the bombing and military pressure have failed to destabilize Qaddafi in the short term. The military was in no position to take over. But while Qaddafi’s position appears secure for the moment, there are signs of popular discontent that could in the longer term spell his downfall. U.S. actions have helped heat the cauldron of unrest.


Power commands respect in the Arab world, and the American bombing showed that Qaddafi’s power was limited. If the Libyan military was discredited inside the government by its failure to protect Libya, so was Qaddafi among the public. Ordinary Libyans have been angered that his arms and rhetoric did not in the end protect them. Some have denounced Qaddafi among themselves and to foreigners with a boldness that would have been unthinkable before the bombing. Qaddafi, in other words, has lost much of his charisma.

It has been long coming. Over the last five years economic problems and Qaddafi’s domestic policies have created many grievances. The effects of the fall in oil prices and continuing arms purchases have been aggravated by mismanagement and Qaddafi’s Green Book theories, under what is called a policy of "partners not wage earners." A private employer hiring a Libyan worker must automatically cede half of his enterprise to the worker and make him a partner. Foreigners can be wage earners, but nearly 40,000 Tunisians and Egyptians hired by Libyans to work in shops, bakeries and fields were evicted in 1985. Some were replaced by Angolans and Moroccans, but in general employers and farmers have lacked both ownership incentives and a ready supply of labor.

The result has been a rampant shortage of food and consumer goods. Libyans are forced to stand in lines to buy things from milk to shampoo. Cavernous government supermarkets stock little more than Cuban sugar and Italian tomato paste. A thriving black market has broken out for scarce goods such as lamb. Price controls falsely repress dangerously building inflation. The black-market dollar during 1986 was running three times the official rate. No one starves, but the poor can afford little, and for the middle class there is little to buy.

The hardships have worsened in recent months. The regime has cut back salaries, research allowances and welfare benefits. In a draconian move, it ordered that every white-collar government employee without a college degree and over the age of 40 be fired by December. The move is designed both to cut the government payroll and to turn more Libyans into blue-collar laborers. Another order issued in August 1986 banned government offices from hiring new university engineering graduates. Overloaded with engineers, the government suggested they join the military.

The regime’s growing radicalism has made daily life ever more chaotic. The government is considering banning the first four years of elementary school as a step toward education by parents; kindergarten admission was restricted this fall. The teaching of foreign languages was also largely banned. In September the government announced that money would be abolished after the "coming season" of people’s congress meetings, creating great uncertainty. Further, the radicalism and increasing bullying of the revolutionary committees have fostered widespread public antipathy. Mandatory military training for high school students and the constant threat of war have aggravated resentments.

Middle-class Libyans could once escape by traveling and studying abroad, but growing travel restrictions imposed by the Libyan government and by Western countries have robbed them of even that outlet. Libyan student programs were shut down in Spain, Ireland, Britain and elsewhere in 1986. Travel to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is not attractive to most Libyans, while the United States and most West European countries have made it very difficult for Libyans to get even tourist visas. And when Libyans do travel to the West, the popular suspicion and tough immigration checks they encounter for fear they might be terrorists humiliates them. They blame Qaddafi.

American economic sanctions have squeezed the Libyan economy and fed the discontent. Oil production has been disrupted by the 1986 presidential orders that forced all American oil companies to leave. Some of the service companies stayed by putting their operations under independent foreign subsidiaries. Occidental, W. R. Grace and the Oasis group companies of Marathon, Amerada Hess and Conoco turned their operations over to Libyans, through formulas that may allow them to return in the future. Meanwhile, the American trade embargo has made it difficult for Libya to buy such items as spare parts for its commercial airliners. In August Libya managed, only via a ruse, to buy two European Airbuses, which have American components.

European economic measures have added to the pressure. For example, the two Airbuses, which belonged to British Caledonian Airways, have been restricted from leaving Libya by suits brought by airlines. Most West European airlines have drastically cut back their service to Libya, Britain’s stopped altogether. Because of unpaid debt, Italian courts have frozen nearly $5 million of Libyan funds in Italian banks. Fearing more such seizures, in September Libya sold its 15-percent stake in Fiat. The United States has frozen nearly $1 billion in Libyan funds in American banks.

The threatening maneuvers by the Sixth Fleet, covert disinformation and rumors have further stirred the simmering pot of social dissent inside Libya. Fear of another American attack is widespread. Exile broadcasts from Iraq of insurgents landing on the beaches in rubber rafts led to the arrest of many ordinary fishermen over the summer, which interrupted the fish supply. Tripoli was largely evacuated September 1 and again September 5 due to rumors of an impending coup and invasion. It is unclear to what extent the rumors were American-inspired.

Still, popular revolt is not imminent; Libyans are not fighters. Moreover, the repressive apparatus is also strong. Hundreds of Libyans have been executed over the years, some in public hangings. Thousands of dissidents are in jail, where torture is reported to be common. There are no leaders or groups to channel the discontent; membership in political parties and fundamentalist Muslim groups is punishable by death. Qaddafi keeps a tight control over what Muslim religious leaders preach, and most of the intelligentsia are among the 50,000 Libyan expatriates.

Perhaps the discontent will someday explode. Perhaps it will move the army to revolt. But most likely, it will provide the rationale and motivation for the assassin many Libyans—and Qaddafi himself—are convinced will someday try to take Qaddafi’s life. Change will not come peacefully to Libya.


If U.S. pressure may ultimately contribute to Qaddafi’s downfall, what success has the policy had in achieving the other goal, that of stopping terrorism? It was, by and large, a quiet summer for terrorism. The American air raid, combined with European expulsion of Libyan organizers, seemed to have curbed Libyan terrorism in the short term. Since then Libya has been directly involved in two terrorist attempts that failed. Both attempts, to bomb a Bank of America branch in Madrid in May and an American officers’ club in Ankara in late April, appeared to be results of plans set in motion before the raid. It is possible that the April U.S. action has some ongoing restraining effect upon Qaddafi; but how much and for how long is unclear.

It is clear, however, that stopping Libya has only limited value in stopping Arab terrorism in general, as the September spate of attacks in Karachi, Istanbul and Paris demonstrated. All were carried out without Libyan involvement, as far as has been determined. In any case, Western intelligence agencies agree that Syria and Iran are much larger and more effective state sponsors of Arab-related terrorism. What terrorism Libya does carry out directly is more often than not botched. The foiled Madrid bombing was typical in that the Libyan "People’s Bureau" in Madrid hired second-rate smugglers, who talked when arrested. In the Berlin discotheque bombing proof of Libyan involvement came from intercepting a clumsy radio message. Libyan security is so drafty that some groups, such as ETA, have decided to stop taking Libyan aid.

Among state sponsors of terrorism, Qaddafi has stood out largely because of his outspokenness and his generosity with money. Palestinian leaders say he continues to help fund them, but then so do moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. And Western intelligence agencies and Palestinians themselves agree that despite the support he gives, Qaddafi has little or no direct control over the Palestinians and their operations.

An example is the Arab National Command. It is made up of all the dissident PLO groups, as well as the ruling parties in Syria and South Yemen. Qaddafi is its creator and titular commander. The Reagan Administration has charged that the command is a terrorist network, and Qaddafi had indeed boasted before the air raid that he would order it into action against American targets worldwide if Libya were bombed. But no such orders have come down and none would be followed if given. The command has held two congresses in Tripoli in the last two years but otherwise exists only on paper. The Palestinians take Qaddafi’s money but look on him with some disdain as an armchair soldier far from the Israeli front.

Stopping Qaddafi, then, will not end PLO terrorism. It will continue so long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved. It grows out of nationalism and despair, and has a dynamic independent of outside support.

Does all this mean that punishing Libya for terrorism was futile? No. It forcefully underlined the point that state terrorism is distinguishable and carries a price, making Qaddafi hesitant. The air raid also sent a message about that price to Syria and Iran, which are said to have become more cautious since the bombing. But the value of the air raid should not be exaggerated. Qaddafi’s florid rhetoric made the bombing popular for American home consumption, but Libya was, in the end, little more than the easy target.

In fact, what is remarkable is that Qaddafi, despite all his activism, is largely politically isolated today. Because of fallen oil income, he is unable even to buy support. A number of non-Palestinian radical groups report that he has cut their aid. Meanwhile, three of his neighbors—Egypt, Tunisia and Chad—have military forces confronting him. The three others—Algeria, Niger and Sudan—regard him with suspicion. In the Sudan he has stopped backing rebels in the south and given aid to the new government, but it remains unconvinced of his sincerity.

In August Morocco became the fifth Arab nation to break a "union" with Libya, two years after Qaddafi had signed the treaty with King Hassan precisely as a way to escape isolation. Black Africa had already largely turned against him by denying him the chairmanship of the Organization of African Unity in 1982. Outside the region, Nicaraguan officials say they have stopped taking aid from Qaddafi because his image damages their diplomacy. The Arab and Third World reaction to the American air raid on Libya was markedly mild; only verbally did they come to Qaddafi’s defense. Syria’s Hafez al-Assad visited Tripoli in August and pledged to "put all its potential alongside Libya in confronting any act of aggression," but it was a pro forma statement.

This lack of support led to Qaddafi’s outburst at the Non-aligned Movement’s summit in Harare. "I want to say goodbye, farewell to this funny movement, to this fallacy—farewell to this utter falsehood," he said. He did not quit, but the performance pathetically underlined that for all his showmanship Qaddafi has become increasingly marginal in the world. Qaddafi is not a leader of the Arab or Third World, not even of its radical members; he remains an isolated, idiosyncratic figure.


The Reagan Administration offended many West European countries by carrying out the April bombing just hours after the European Community had voted diplomatic sanctions on Libya in an emergency meeting called by Italy. The Mediterranean countries—Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey—also were particularly concerned about turmoil and retaliatory actions in what is their backyard. The attempted Libyan attack of April 15 on the Italian island of Lampedusa was an example of what they feared.

All the European countries have resisted an American call for more sanctions. Europe’s economic interests in Libya remain considerable. Some 10,000 West Europeans still live and work in Libya, including over 3,500 British and about 2,400 Italians; 10,000 Turks are also there. As of October, Libya owed Italy roughly $600 million in arrears, and South Korea and West Germany each another $300 to $400 million. Turkey, France, Great Britain and Spain also held sizable Libyan portfolios. Each wants to stay to ensure it is paid.

The fundamental difference between the United States and West European governments over Libya is that the latter almost unanimously think that the United States has exaggerated the Libyan threat, and has overreacted to it. They especially think so in light of the Soviet risk. They are concerned that U.S. overreaction could well precipitate a threat greater than the one Qaddafi presently poses.

West Europeans fear a Libyan Soviet base in the Mediterranean, directed at the soft southern belly of Europe itself. The Soviets have long coveted the former British deepwater naval base at Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. Until recently Soviet-Libyan relations have been testy. Distrustful, Qaddafi has resisted giving the Soviets automatic port privileges. He abhors communism as godless and, while he has dutifully backed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he vocally opposes Soviet efforts for a Middle East peace conference. He has further irked the Soviets by reselling Soviet-bought arms to Iran while the Soviets themselves are supplying Iraq. The Soviets, for their part, have denied Qaddafi the mutual defense treaty he wants. Soviet diplomats confide that they do not trust the Libyan leader’s mercurial ways. The Soviets have thus contented themselves with massive arms sales for which Qaddafi is more than $5 billion in arrears, allowing Moscow to extract payment in the form of oil below world prices.

Yet since the April bombing Qaddafi has turned strongly pro-Soviet in his pronouncements. Calling at Harare for alignment with the Warsaw Pact, he said "nonalignment has become a word that should not be said." Whether he has been offering the Soviets anything concrete to forge a closer alliance is not publicly known. It is assumed that there is some offer—Tobruk?—which the Soviets might bite. What worries Europeans is that the raid and continued pressure could drive Qaddafi to make such an offer, and give the Soviets a strategic outpost that would alter the Mediterranean balance of power.

It is unclear whether the Soviets will judge it in their interest to respond to Qaddafi’s appeals, especially if they are interested in courting European public opinion to divide the Western alliance or in improving superpower relations for the sake of progress on arms control. It is possible that they are content with the status quo in Libya, and would even prefer to wait until Qaddafi is overthrown to make another move there. As it is, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Soviet military advisers and an equal number of East European ones are strategically spread through the Libyan armed forces. Thus they would be in a good position to take advantage of a coup—or possibly even stimulate one.

There is little reason for the Soviets to instigate a coup against Qaddafi, given his current pro-Soviet stand; they probably would not stand in the way of one, however, given their wariness of Qaddafi’s unpredictability. The Soviets are widely thought to favor the pragmatic Jalloud if Qaddafi were to be replaced, although opinions differ over whether Jalloud is in fact pro-Soviet. If he is not pro-Soviet, a bevy of Libyan officers who have been trained in Warsaw Pact countries are, and the Soviets could back them.


So what should the United States do about Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi? The Administration’s obsession with overthrowing him is not the answer.

Another direct attack risks alienating Western Europe. It also risks provoking a genuine Soviet-Libyan alliance. Pushing Qaddafi toward Soviet protection hardly serves America’s greater interests. Soviet bases in Libya would present a threat to NATO, as well as expand Soviet influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, all vital areas of American interest.

Even short of forcing a Soviet-Libyan alliance, a second American attack without clear justification could force the Soviet Union into some kind of strong reaction, if for no other reason than to gain credibility in the Arab world.

American interests in Arab and Third World countries could also be damaged. Their reaction to the April air raid was minimal, in part because many countries, whatever their public pronouncements, saw that Qaddafi was playing with fire by directing terrorism against American targets. Obvious military bullying to overthrow Qaddafi, however, is not likely to meet with such a quiescent response. There is no such thing as a united Arab world, but there is an Arab brotherhood that resents outside bullying of one of their own. Even Egypt, the most anti-Qaddafi Arab state, has refused to join in American contingency plans to overthrow the Libyan.

Bombing is of marginal military value anyway. A massive operation was mounted and two American pilots died in April. The political message was clear, but the actual military damage was minimal—little more than a handful of parked Libyan planes. Meanwhile, a number of civilians were killed as American bombs hit a Tripoli neighborhood. The best plans and latest technology can go awry in combat.

American zealotry to overthrow Qaddafi may thus bode failure—failure for U.S. policy in Europe, with the Soviets, and in the Arab and Third Worlds. It may also bode failure inside Libya itself. A coup brought about purposefully and clearly by American provocation stands to be counterproductive. Pro-American and possibly even moderate forces inside Libya would likely be discredited as American lackeys. Libya is filled with competing pro-Soviet, radical nationalistic and Muslim fundamentalist currents that are both anti-Qaddafi and anti-American. In the grab for power that is likely to follow the killing of Qaddafi, the moderates could very easily be branded as U.S. agents and lose out to forces inimical to U.S. interests.

All this is not to say that the United States should discard another military attack as a policy option. Should Libya commit an egregious terrorist attack against an American target, a second attack could be considered to deter further state terror. But the terrorist act must be egregious, and the proof of direct Libyan involvement must be so clear that American military retaliation appears justified to Western Europe, to the Soviet Union and to the Arab and Third Worlds. Otherwise, the risks outweigh the gains, which in any case are primarily short term.

This suggests that the best tools for dealing with Qaddafi are economic and diplomatic. The fortuitous drop in the world price of oil has undermined Qaddafi and his foreign adventurism more than the American air raid. The current economic and travel restrictions by the United States and Western Europe augment the effect, stirring a popular disenchantment in Libya which makes it almost certain that Qaddafi will sooner or later be overthrown. Such economic and diplomatic measures do not provoke European, Soviet or Arab opposition. They allow for moderate elements inside Libya to maneuver legitimately to replace Qaddafi.

The United States can help these moderate forces with covert aid. It can also help stir the cauldron of Libyan society and unsettle Qaddafi with such subtle psychological warfare as spreading rumors among Libyans. Overt lying by American officials via the press, however, goes beyond the pale. It undermines the credibility of both the press and the American government at a time when the truth about what is happening inside Libya is more than sufficient to discredit Qaddafi and his regime. The United States, in seeking to unsettle Qaddafi with military maneuvers, need not also act the part of a bellicose giant. American warships and planes need only be sighted by Libyan radar to have the effect of subtly turning up the heat inside the Libyan armed forces.

In October the British set an example of what the Europeans say is a more realistic and consistent policy than air raids in dealing with state terrorism—in this case, with Syria, a bigger and more politically powerful player than Libya in the terrorist game. The Thatcher government broke diplomatic relations with Syria after divulging what it said were telephone conversations proving the complicity of a Syrian ambassador in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airliner at the London airport. A British court convicted a Jordanian, recruited and trained by Syria, of putting a bomb in a bag belonging to his Irish girlfriend boarding the plane. The revelation and subsequent rupture in relations was internationally embarrassing to Syria, and has begun a process of what could be the diplomatic isolation of that country.

Toward Libya, what is called for is such a sense of measure. Qaddafi is his own worst enemy. He thrives on crisis, and in quiet times he grows bored. His increasing radicalization almost seems designed to keep his adrenalin flowing, but his radical vision is unworkable and doomed to failure. Qaddafi has set his regime on a course of self-destruction. The best American policy would be to turn off the rhetoric from Washington and let him go.

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