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Crossing Qaddafi's line

IT is the asymmetry in character between the United States and Libya under Col. Muammar Qaddafi, more than the obvious mismatch in strength, that is troubling about their armed engagement in the Gulf of Sidra. The United States thinks of itself as a stalwart power, morally dependable, unable to fire in anger, resorting to arms only when provoked; it sees Colonel Qaddafi as villainous, capricious, devious, inciting terrorist bands to global troublemaking. There is much truth in these characterizations. Washington fumed over its inability to punish Qaddafi, or anyone else, for the most recent spate of terrorist acts. When Qaddafi drew his own line of confrontation, in waters that only Libya contends is its territory, this was evidently too tempting for Washington to resist. But if the American purpose was to bring the colonel to heel through some assertive show of ``democratic'' force, the prospects are hardly encouraging.

More likely, several messages were being sent by Washington. At this moment, the tailspin in oil prices is pulling Libya's economy down; calling Qaddafi's bluff, or exposing him as a paper tiger, could embolden his rivals within Libya, destabilize his regime, and topple him. It is a signal for him to watch out with his troublemaking in Chad, in further offending France. It showed that mounting a huge US naval presence off, say, Iran or Nicaragua, is also possible. Coming just after the US fleet sailed close to the Soviet Union's Black Sea littoral, it projects the image of a self-confident Yankee naval presence unafraid to risk any rival's displeasure; this suits the unilateralist side of the Reagan administration during arms negotiations, and its claim, in the prolonged budget debate, that expanded defense outlays are needed to sustain the projection of American strength.

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This is a lot of freight for getting into a fight with ``mad'' Muammar to bear.

Is the United States in the anti-terrorist sheriff business? Was not Qaddafi its most convenient target? It did not take on Syria, for instance, with which it has more serious ongoing disputes.

Qaddafi will hardly be martyred in the Arab world. The Arab community can judge him for what he is.

Outlaws discredit themselves. One hopes the exchange in the Gulf of Sidra ends quickly, with minimal loss of life, in proving this point.

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