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The Libyan incident: more than meets the eye?

Now, from the same people who brought you the Gulf of Tonkin comes the Gulf of Sidra, the latest extravaganza starring the United States Navy as the protector of the freedom of the seas.

The flare-up over the Gulf of Sidra off the coast of Libya may be short-lived and soon forgotten, but so did it seem of the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. The Earlier episode raises some nagging questions about the later one.

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In the Gulf of Tonkin, as the Johnson administration originally told it, a couple of Navy destroyers were on "routine patrol" in international waters, where they had every right to be. Years later, it turned out that the patrol was not routine at all; it was part of a deliberately provocative electronic intelligence gathering mission aimed at North Vietnamese coastal radar installations.

In the Gulf of Sidra, the Navy F-14s, to hear the Reagan administration tell it, were again on a routine patrol as part of a larger training exercise. But the larger exercise was sufficiently nonroutine to have been specifically and personally approved by the President after a National Security Council meeting attended by the commanding admiral.

It was also the subject of advance consultation with Congress pursuant to the War Powers Resolution.This law, which was passed over Nixon's veto in frustration over the Johnson-Nixon policies in Vietnam, requires such consultation not only when American forces are sent into foreign combat but also when they are introduced "into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances." The Reagan administration, then, anticipated a violent Libyan reaction. (It also complied with the law, for which it deserves credit.)

In contrast with the Gulf of Tonkin, the engagement over the Gulf of Sidra was not as clearly and unambiguously in international air space as the Reagan administration has said. The question revolves around the headland-to-headland method of separating territorial waters from the high seas. The US and most of the rest of the world maintain that the line delimiting territorial waters follows the indentation of the coast line, a method which would make most of the Gulf of Sidra the high seas.

The headland-to-headland method, however, is not a radical Arab doctrine concocted by Libyan strongman Colonel Qaddafi. It has a long history as a point of responsible contention in international law. It deserves to be taken seriously even if we don't agree with it. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Navy's ships in the exercise stayed outside the line claimed by Libya; only the F-14s ventured inside.

In the Gulf of Tonkin, the American destroyers were said to have been attacked but not damaged by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Later, it turned out that they might well not have been attacked at all.

In the Gulf of Sidra, it is said that the Libyan planes fired a missile, which missed, at the F-14s. How do we know? (In the Gulf of Tonkin, a Navy sonarman might have confused the sound of a school of fish with that of a North Vietnamese torpedo. It is well to remember, too, that the highly secret radio intercepts on which the Johnson administration relied to establish the North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin turned out to be ambiguous at best.)

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In both cases, the American naval presv ence was explained as simply showing the flag and asserting the American determination to exercise the right to sail or fily wherever we pleased in international space. In tonkin, it was in fact a good deal more than that. Is this the case also in Sidra where the Reagan administration was expecting a Libyan reaction which it seemed intent on provoking?

The Reagan administration has not, of course, followed up the Gulf of Sidra incident as vigorously as the Johnson administration followed up the Gulf of Tonkin. Libyan air bases have not been bombed as North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases were, but then the US is not otherwise militarily involved with Libya as was the case with North Vietnam. Congress has not been asked to pass a resolution supporting the President and giving him carte blanche to expand a war -- as happened after Tonkin. Congress, of course, is in recess, but there has been no indication such as resolution is contemplated.

It may well be that there is no more to the Gulf of Sidra incident than meets the eye. Let us hope so. But in August 1964 there appeared to be no more to the Gulf of Tonkin incident than met the eye, either. And a great many people in Washington who did not ask the tough questions about it then bitterly regretted their naivete later.

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