USUALLY when a war starts, the people who are involved have a general idea what it is about. President Reagan is in an undeclared war with Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. Why? So far as the official record shows, the President of the United States is trying to punish Colonel Qaddafi for allegedly promoting, arranging, or supporting acts of violence committed along the commercial air lanes of the world and in the public discoth`eque in Berlin in which Americans were injured and one was killed.
Therefore, the superficial issue is Colonel Qaddafi's freedom to commit acts of violence at will. He is presumed to be acting piratically for no rational reason. Mr. Reagan has called him a ``mad dog.''
This version of the affair would mean that President Reagan is trying to punish the perpetrator of wanton acts of international terrorism so as to discourage him from committing further acts of such terrorism.
There is another dimension to the affair.
Most of the actors in the various incidents have not been citizens of Libya. So far as the record shows, they have usually been Palestinian irregulars or guerrillas. Their journeys of violence have often begun in Syria. The Libyan role has been secondary. The target is Israel, with which the Palestinians are in a state of war, or the US, because it supports Israel in the unfinished war between Israel and Palestinian Arabs.
The underlying fact is that American weapons and American economic subsidies make it possible for Israel to retain control of the Arab territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 war and held ever since under Israeli military occupation.
Without American guns and American economic subsidies, Israel would have been forced long since to come to terms with the Palestinians. With the American guns and subsidy, Israel is physically able to continue to hold these territories, and the Palestinians are denied a homeland they can call their own.
At present Colonel Qaddafi is one of the few Arab leaders actively and openly supporting Palestinian military action against Israel and against Israel's suppliers of the weapons of war. His actions are aimed at Israel. The US, in his eyes, is an incidental victim. He is hitting at Israel through the US. Harm to Americans is a price the US pays for its support of Israel.
Colonel Qaddafi has no serious quarrel with the US other than over US support for Israel.
True, he is an Arab fundamentalist. He resents residual forms of Western colonialism in his community. He would like to be free to build an imperial system around Libya. But the issue that causes violence between him and the US is Israel.
In theory the US is ``evenhanded'' in the Middle East. It is party to a ``Tripartite Declaration'' which commits it to sustaining all frontiers in the Middle East, Arab as well as Israeli. It is a cosponsor of UN resolutions that call for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied during and since the 1967 war, in return for Arab recognition of Israel.
But in practice the US gives Israel the latest American weapons in sufficient quantity to keep Israel in a position of military superiority over its combined Arab neighbors. In addition, the US provides economic support sufficient to keep the Israeli standard of living at Western European levels of affluence.
When William Rogers was US secretary of state, during the Nixon administration, he declared that US policy supports Israel but not Israel's ``spoils of war'' from its 1967 conquests. That Rogers policy has never been officially repudiated, but the US has ever since made it economically and militarily possible for Israel to hold on to those Arab territories.
In other words, by attacking Libya the US is making itself an active military partisan of Israel in Israel's war with the Palestinians. US military action against Libya is thus an episode in a continuing war being fought over Israel's retention of the Arab territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. That war will of course go on unless or until Israelis and Palestinians make peace with each other.