While the latest terrorist outrages at the Rome and Vienna airports may have brought the United States to the brink of armed conflict with Libya, the ultimate decision not to use military force has, in the view of a number of U.S. officials and foreign diplomats, undermined America's friends while boosting Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi.
One Arab ambassador whose government is among the most pro-Western in the region complained last week, "You Americans have turned Kadafi into Lawrence of Arabia on a Massey-Ferguson tractor." More seriously, he argued that by threatening military retaliation and then backing down, the Administration "gave Kadafi the opportunity to mobilize support at home and throughout the Islamic world." Another Arab ambassador agreed, saying, "Kadafi is seen as having stood up to the United States. In terms of Arab politics it is a major success. We now cannot afford to be critical of him." Both ambassadors concluded by saying, at best, America looks foolish.
This perception is not lost on senior White House officials. At a National Security Council meeting last week, an obviously frustrated Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan blurted out, "We have no anti-terrorism policy." Although this assessment brought a dressing-down from Secretary of State George P. Shultz ("Anyone who says something like that, doesn't know anything about our anti-terrorism policy," Shultz retorted), a number of Administration officials who usually side with Shultz concede Regan's point. "Our policy is to conclude that the disadvantages of action always outweigh the advantages," said one angry White House official.
Even at the Pentagon, where much of the opposition to military action against terrorists is concentrated, there was a palpable sense of disappointment. "We thought this time it was a 'go,' " said one key official. The President's stumbling performance at Tuesday's press conference did little to raise morale. "He couldn't even deliver the prepared script," complained one official. More important, this official and others say they expected Reagan to begin a campaign to discredit Kadafi and his regime. "Instead, he engaged in some ridiculous name-calling," said one Pentagon insider.
Another measure of Administration frustration was a willingness, even among officials usually quick to condemn Israeli military ventures, to urge that Israel respond with force against Libya. "They (the Israelis) could have done us and themselves a favor by striking at Kadafi," argued one Pentagon official.
This official and his counterparts at the State Department insist that the flap over whether the Administration was initially "leaning on Israel" not to employ force never concerned possible military moves against Libya. "Israel was told not to upset other things," said one State Department insider. "After the Tunis raid (the Oct. 1 Israeli bombing raid on PLO headquarters in Tunisia), we wanted to make sure the Israelis weren't planning to hit somewhere like, say, Jordan," he added.
The Administration needn't have worried. Israel's Ministry of Defense was even less inclined than the Pentagon to retaliate. Almost as soon as reports arrived about the airport killings, senior Israeli officials were downplaying the possibility of military action against Libya. They noted that unlike the situation in Lebanon, Israel lacks good intelligence on Libyan terrorist targets and unlike Tunisia, Libya's air defense system is operational. Dismissing the idea of retaliation, Israel's Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in an interview, emphasized a need for concerted European and American efforts to fight terrorism. "We have produced a credible policy. It is also a European and American problem."
Rabin, however, has few illusions, particularly about European resolve. "El Al (Israel's airline) planes cannot be hijacked. European planes can," he said.
The lack of European resolve is also a major concern to U.S. policy-makers. Despite the Administration's brave public posture on economic sanctions against Libya, few if any officials expect support from America's NATO allies. Derisively they speak of their "commercial instinct," which, at this point, they consider an insurmountable obstacle.
Some U.S. officials, however, rise to the defense of the Europeans. They argue that the Europeans properly regard anti-terrorism as "police work." The French, Germans and Italians have been effective in fighting domestic terrorist organizations by employing methods denied their American counterparts. These Administration officials see merit, therefore, in European charges that the United States is clumsy in opting for high-profile responses like economic boycott or even worse, conventional military actions. These officials also resent congressional restrictions on CIA covert activities--activities they believe to be the most effective means of "neutralizing" Kadafi. This is a point repeatedly stressed by Arab diplomats. "Only in America is a major bombing raid considered a legitimate act of war while a single assassination is murder," said one pro-Western Arab.
Nonetheless, at least one key White House official believes the Europeans may be "provoked into cooperation." In the past, he says, a number of European countries, including Austria, had implicit understandings with Middle East terrorist organizations that essentially allowed the terrorists to "pass through" but not conduct operations in their countries. But with renegades like Abu Nidal violating all the "rules," these agreements, he says, are clearly breaking down.
While some Administration members optimistically await eventual European cooperation, others believe unilateral American military action more likely. For a number of U.S. officials it isn't a question of the efficacy of military action but its importance to domestic and foreign opinion. At home, they fear continued humiliations by Kadafi could result in a "Carterization" of Ronald Reagan, the unmaking of five years worth of "America is back" rhetoric.
Abroad, it is a question of saving U.S. allies "in spite of themselves." U.S. officials are too cynical and weary after years of jousting with the Europeans over the Middle East to expect them to come around. ("Do you know what we have to go through to gain Italian acquiescence in the normal resupply of Israel in peacetime?" asks one exasperated State Department official.) Nonetheless, as leader of the Western Alliance, the United States, in the view of most senior foreign-policy officials, must sometimes chart a course that the allies are unwilling or unable to follow.
In short, if military action is undertaken by the Reagan Administration against Libya, it will be less about retaliation and more about rescuing lost reputation. As one U.S. analyst says, "It is not a question of utility, it is a question of leadership."