Allies patch rift caused by Libya strike. Tacit US nod toward arms control paved way for allied unity on terrorism
The first week of May has brought with it spring flowers and a patching over of the great rift that had opened in the Western alliance from the United States air strikes at Libya. It also brought with it a stage-managed change in the political leadership in Afghanistan, which could mean a step by Moscow toward an ultimate withdrawal of Soviet troops from that country. Such withdrawal would, in turn, remove a major obstacle to a revival of easier East-West relations.
Two other events of the week were noteworthy. In Libya, the Soviet Union was criticized for having ostentatiously looked the other way when American bombs were falling on Tripoli and Benghazi. And both houses of the US Congress, without being prodded by the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, voted against selling new American weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The Tokyo summit provided the occasion, obviously welcomed by all participants, for putting an end to their open differences over Libya. They all signed a statement against terrorism which specifically mentioned Libya and committed all parties present in Tokyo to a series of actions (most of which are already in operation) which might reduce Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's range for future violence.
The quid pro quo was tacit rather than explicit. The text on terrorism called for actions ``within the framework of international law.'' President Reagan, at a farewell press conference in Tokyo, was ambiguous on whether there might be more US military action against Libya. The implication was that he had, in effect, promised no more air strikes without the consent of his allies and friends. His actual words on this point were:
``We do feel, and this was part of the gist of the conversation that we all had and the agreements that we came to, and that is that we can take whatever action is necessary to curb, to stop, to punish -- if they are successful in the terrorist attempt -- those who practice terrorism and the states who back and support it. There isn't anything in which we said we would try to preclude some nation from action.''
So, the US is still free to repeat bombs on Libya, provided it is done within ``the framework of international law.'' But Mr. Reagan denied that the US is planning to do so.
Nothing in the texts from Tokyo spelled out any other quid pro quos, but Mr. Reagan had tentatively decided before going to Tokyo to refrain from breaching the arms control limits of the unratified SALT II treaty.
In other words, the summit conference was where the friends and allies put their stamp of consent upon Mr. Reagan's anti-Libya campaign in return for an unwritten understanding that he will stay with arms control and not hit Libya again without prior consultation. There was also much more about economic and monetary consultation, but nothing binding and nothing likely to make changes in the near future.
More intriguing are the implications of the change in command in Afghanistan. The Soviets have long been dissatisfied with Babrak Karmal. They had brought him in when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He has failed to gain political acceptance in the country. He asked for a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev during the Soviet Communist Party Congress in Moscow in February. The request was overtly denied -- a sure sign of displeasure in higher Kremlin circles. He went to Moscow on March 30 and was not back in Kabul until last week. Rumors had been put out about his health. This week his resignation ``was accepted'' on grounds of health.
Babrak Karmal was not pushed out quite as roughly as Ferdinand Marcos, but it was a similar story. Each had failed to win broad general acceptance among his people. Each had become an embarrassment to the sponsoring superpower. Each had to go.
Mr. Karmal was replaced by Lt. Gen. Muhammad Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police. He has apparently spent most of his career in his own country and is said to possess considerable political skill. The change was announced Sunday, one day before the foreign minister of the Afghan regime was to meet in Geneva with the foreign minister of Pakistan under the aegis of a United Nations mediator.
At the latest Soviet Party Congress in late February, Mr. Gorbachev declared that the Soviet Union would like to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan ``in the nearest future.'' Withdrawal would be a necessary preliminary to a revival of semi-independence for Afghanistan and a return of the refugees.
The invasion of Afghanistan was the final fatal blow to the d'etente which Richard Nixon had forged and his two successors had kept going, with difficulty. An end to the Soviet occupation could do a lot to remove a major bone of contention between Moscow and Washington.
The publication in newspapers in Libya of criticism of Moscow's nonrole in the American bombing of Libya is one of those events which could signal a change of policy in Libya. However, Colonel Qaddafi is a notorious loner.
The massive congressional votes against sales of US arms to Saudi Arabia -- 73-22 in the Senate, 356-62 in the House -- is not quite the end of the matter. President Reagan can veto the negative resolution and hope to convert enough senators and congressmen to prevent an override. The congressional action was taken in spite of the fact that Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington had stood aside and refrained from active lobbying.
The action merely records the fact that most of Congress will vote in the manner it assumes Israel wants it to vote, without being told publicly.
The bigger issue will come up later when the President tries to deliver to Saudi Arabia the advanced warning and surveillance aircraft (AWACS) which the Saudis bought in 1981 and which are now ready for delivery. The sale was originally approved by the Senate, by a close vote, but delivery requires a presidential certification that Saudi Arabia cooperates in the search for a Middle East peace. The Senate can challenge the finding and block the delivery of the AWACS. Failure to make that delivery would probably end a special relationship between Washington and the Saudis, who are the wealthiest and most conservative of the Arab states. It could even drive them to Moscow for weapons.