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Mideast violence: beware the swamp of political expediency

ON the second anniversary of the American bombing of Libya, Col. Muammar Qaddafi pointed a sharply accusing finger at the double standard Washington applies to hate and violence: ``In creating justifications for positions and actions against us, America makes a mountain out of a molehill,'' lamented the resilient master of Libyan policy, ``but, for the Israelis, America makes a molehill out of a mountain.'' As an unrelenting critic of Colonel Qaddafi's support for acts of violence these past 15 years, I do not accept his blanket characterization of them as ``molehills.'' But his basic complaint that Washington deliberately overlooks Israeli ``mountains'' remains valid. Therefore, I had reason to reflect when, less than 36 hours after our interview at Bab Azziziyah Barracks, Israeli commandos invaded Tunisia and brutally assassinated the Palestine Liberation Organization's Khalil al-Wazir (nom de guerre, Abu Jihad) in a desperate effort to stop Palestinian youths from hurling stones at occupation forces.

I was reminded of my condemnation of the so-called Libyan ``hit squads'' in a lengthy compendium of Libyan misdeeds that was published in July 1980. As in Tunis, those ``hits'' involved the premeditated murder of government opponents. There were, of course, differences as well as similarities between the acts of violence, but they hardly mitigated the Israeli action. Most significantly, the Libyans were usually ``hit'' by pairs of overly zealous teen-age bunglers who were captured at the scene. The Wazir operation was conducted by a team of up to 20 disciplined military professionals who evaded capture by using US-built aircraft and electronic technology to jam Tunisian communications. That distinction hardly favors Israel on the issue of plausible deniability or insulates the US from criticism.

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Wazir's brutal death also reminded me of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination in October 1981. For all intents and purposes, the second-ranking figure in the PLO was as much a government official as Sadat, but there were again differences as well as similarities.

No matter how repugnant and damaging, Sadat's assassination was executed by Egyptians on Egyptian soil; Wazir was struck down by foreign enemies in a third country that had only given him refuge at US urging following the PLO's defeat in Lebanon. That difference can only encourage the spread of violence beyond the battlefield and raise the question of US reliability.

Despite a lack of evidence of Libyan operational involvement in Sadat's death, I urged that we end our business-as-usual relationship in order to warn Qaddafi - and his would-be emulators - that open encouragement and justification of political violence is intolerable. Editorialists, members of Congress, and the administration endorsed the idea. The first of an escalating set of economic sanctions was put in place in December.

In the course of writing a book on the bloody deterioration of US-Libyan relations, I have been warned by the Iran-contra revelations to be wary of third-country manipulation, disreputable information peddlers, orchestrated disinformation campaigns, partisan political agendas, and frustrated White House activists. Still, I am convinced that some condemnation of Libyan activities was warranted and economic sanctions were appropriate. But, such condemnation and punishment can be justified only if it is evenly applied to all who perpetuate the hatred and violence that kill our citizens, paralyze our diplomacy, and rupture longstanding relationships.

Given the US response to Wazir's murder, I regret the lack of such equity. Just five days later, the US and Israel signed an unprecedented five-year agreement for military, economic, political, and intelligence cooperation. Then the US abstained on an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council condemnation of the assassination.

A dual standard that rewards violence perpetrated by Israel and punishes that committed by Libya, or any other Arab state, undercuts our national interest. It relinquishes the moral high ground which, for all its pitfalls, provides better footing than the swamp of political expediency. It undermines Arab governments and forces them to distance themselves from US objectives. It discredits American efforts to win international support for a professedly evenhanded resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And, perhaps most dangerous, it sets an example for others - Qaddafi included - to adopt similarly hypocritical standards that can be used to justify violence under circumstances of their own choosing.

``We don't expect the United States to abandon Israel,'' one of Qaddafi's longtime colleagues said to me. ``But we do want to be judged by the same standards. Wrong is wrong, whether it is in Munich, Beirut, Tripoli, or wherever...,'' including, I would now add, Tunis.

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It seems an admonition worth heeding if we want to encourage Qaddafi to exercise restraint; the other side of the coin is to concede that every party can determine for himself when ``wrong is right.''

G. Henry M. Schuler is director of the Dewey F. Bartlett Program on Energy Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. His recent trip to Libya was authorized by the US government.

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