Col. Muammar Qaddafi's Libya is wealthier, better armed, and more ambitious than countries with 20 times the population. But a meddlesome foreign policy, ambitious territorial claims, and a world oil surplus have left Libya a loner even among radical Arab states.
This is why Western and Arab political analysts in the Mideast believe there will be little Arab rallying to Libya as a result of the Aug. 19 downing of two Libyan jets by United States Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters.
There had been widespread speculation in the region the past few months about American, American-Egyptian, and Egyptian-Israeli aims to confront Colonel Qaddafi. Egyptian Army exercises have been conducted frequently this year in the border area with Libya. Moreover, Libya has become increasingly isolated from its one-time supporters in recent months.
In June and July, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq cold-shouldered Libyan attempts to rekindle relations in order to pose a united front against Israel. Traditional allies such as Syria and Algeria are distant also, given their relatively less radical policies of late (on Lebanon, in the case of Syria, and on the western Sahara, in the case of Algeria). Libya today seems comfortable only with overtly pro-Soviet South Yemen (Aden) and Ethiopia, which Qaddafi this week called on to join Libya in an anti-US axis, and with a score of "liberation" movements.
But if friends are few, Colonel Qaddafi's ambitions still are great. A naval acquisition program, says an Arab political analyst, is geared to giving Libya the third most powerful sea force of any Mediterranean country (after France and Italy). The aim: to enforce Qaddafi's claim to a 200-mile sea boundary, violation of which was the reason why the two Soviet-built SU-22 fighters intercepted American forces in the Gulf of Sidra Aug. 19.
Such a boundary would give Qaddafi control of passage through the central Mediterranean sea lanes to interdict shipping to Israel. A French cargo vessel reportedly was impounded at Benghazi recently on accusation it was en route to Israel. In the 19th century, when it was known as the Barbary Coast, Libya stopped shipping in a similar manner.
More immediately, however, the territorial limit is meant to protect Libya's Mediterranean coast, where 90 percent of the population resides and also to safeguard offshore oil claims. Tunisia and Malta are particularly perturbed by the Libyan territorial claim since it infringes on their offshore areas. In 1977 Tunisia stood at the brink of war with Libya over the dispute, and last year Libyan submarines (there are three Soviet Foxtrot subs in the Libyan an investory along with dozens of warships ranging up to a 1,325-ton frigate) were dispatched to halt Maltese drilling.
But it is Libya's less overt ties with guerrilla movements -- ranging from the Polisario of the western Sahara, to the hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), to the Aden-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman -- that have made it a thorn in the paw of the US and of Arab conservatives.
Diplomats have been noting the rising level of acrimony between Libya and the US and its Arab allies. Israel and especially Egypt have been warning the US about the growing threat of Qaddafi's military arsenal (estimated value $12 billion). The Egyptian defense minister, Lt. Gen. Abdel Halim Abu Ghazzala noted March 28 that "the Soviets have their war equipment there [in Libya]. All they have to do is bring in the men."
If a US-Libyan confrontation develops in earnest it will bring into focus Libyan oil sales to the US. In 1980, the US bought 600,000 barrels a day from Libya, most of it a high-grade crude necessary for jet fuel.But the present oil surplus has caused Libya to lose some sales contracts, and the 600,000 barrels per day represents 35 percent of Libya's revenue-earning foreign sales.
A cutoff of sales to the US, oil sources contend, could hurt Libya more than the US at this point. Thus Libya finds its room for maneuvering severely constrained.