The U.S. Navy's foray into the Gulf of Sidra earlier this week was intended by Secretary of State George P. Shultz and national security adviser John M. Poindexter to draw Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi into an exchange of fire with U.S. forces, Reagan Administration officials say.
Contrary to official Administration statements that the naval exercises were peaceful in intent and that the United States hoped Libya would not respond, knowledgeable officials said Shultz and Poindexter decided three months ago that the long-planned maneuvers might provide the chance to use American military power against a sponsor of terrorism.
"We would have been disappointed if Kadafi had sent nobody up to challenge us," said one official who participated in the planning. "It was provocation, if you want to use that word. While everything we did was perfectly legitimate, we were not going to pass up the opportunity to strike."
Even before the Navy's armada of three aircraft carriers and 30 other warships was in position off Libya's Mediterranean coast, U.S. warplanes flew repeated missions skirting the edge of Kadafi's defenses, a ploy one military officer referred to as "poking them in the ribs . . . to keep them on edge."
And once the exercise, known as Operation Prairie Fire, was officially under way, commanding officer Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso II was authorized to respond to Libyan attacks with escalating counterstrikes that eventually could have included destroying Kadafi's air force and bombing his oil fields, several officials said.
But if the U.S. maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra were deliberately provocative, officials added, the response to the expected Libyan hostilities was measured and cautious. President Reagan, they said, insisted that U.S. military measures be "proportional" to Libya's actions.
The result was a two-day conflict in which the Navy sank three Libyan patrol boats, attacked a missile base ashore and reported no casualties of its own. But it also left the Administration's terrorism policy as uncertain as when it began.
The uncertainty reflected divisions within the Administration over the reasons for drawing Kadafi into hostilities. Shultz was pursuing his longstanding campaign to promote the use of military force against terrorism, and some officials even hoped that a major battle could help weaken Kadafi and hasten his fall.
The Defense Department wanted merely to assert the Navy's right of free passage on international waters over Kadafi's claim that the Gulf of Sidra is a Libyan waterway. As it has in the past, the Defense Department played a restraining role and argued that an all-out strike against Kadafi was unwise.
Shultz Wanted Retaliation
"Shultz wanted tough retaliation," one aide recalled. "The Pentagon said we're not in the counterterrorism business. But the two sides came together on the idea of the naval exercises. Shultz and Poindexter said, 'Fine, call it what you want, and we'll do it on that basis.' "
After the battle of the Gulf of Sidra, several officials said, the Administration may find it easier to decide on military force the next time Kadafi is tied to a terrorist attack on American citizens. "Now that we've done it once, and successfully, it won't seem like an extreme option next time," a senior official noted.
But while Reagan's top aides were in broad agreement on the need to stage maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra, there is still no clear consensus on what to do next time.
"Those who had an anti-terrorist agenda didn't get what they wanted--which was to take out northern Libya," he said.
The Administration, and especially Shultz, had been grappling with Kadafi long before the Libyan leader stepped before television cameras in his naval officer's uniform in late January and grandiloquently announced that the northern border of the Gulf of Sidra was a "line of death" for foreign forces that crossed it.
The Navy shot down two Libyan jet fighters in 1981 after a similar challenge. Later that year, Reagan charged that Kadafi had dispatched "hit squads" to the United States to assassinate American officials.
Last summer, officials said, Shultz and then-national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane settled on Kadafi as a test case of the Administration's new assertiveness against terrorism. With Reagan's approval, the CIA was ordered to plan possible covert actions and assess the range of other options, the Pentagon was directed to look at military targets, and the State Department was asked to develop programs for political and economic pressure.
Request to Allies
As a first step, Shultz asked the United States' European allies to join in a program of sanctions against Kadafi.
But the allies' response was disappointing. Even after bloody terrorist attacks on Rome and Vienna airports last Dec. 27--attacks that U.S. officials said were clearly tied to Kadafi--most Western European governments refused to sign on.
The Administration ordered all American citizens out of Libya and froze Libyan assets in the United States. "If these steps do not end Kadafi's terrorism, I promise you that further steps will be taken," Reagan warned on Jan. 7.
Aides to Shultz and Poindexter had already found one "further step"--exercises that had already been planned for three U.S. aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.
"Where this all started was George Shultz looking for a way to retaliate against terrorist actions," one planner said. "We ended up with the economic sanctions, which was not much. Then we saw the exercises coming up. So we looked to see what we could do with them."
"The three carriers weren't there because of our response to Rome and Vienna," another official said. "It was a matter of rotation. . . . This window was the only time in a year that we've had three carriers in the Med."
At first, officials said, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and the Navy were reluctant to plan actively for a showdown with Kadafi. State Department planners complained that Defense would not commit itself clearly to sending planes and ships into the Gulf of Sidra, although Pentagon officials dispute that.
But two events gave the plan new impetus. In late January, Kadafi sailed his yacht melodramatically into the gulf and declared that he planned to "stand and fight with our backs to the wall."
"His claim on the gulf was so outrageous, we had to respond," a senior official said.
Then, in February, the CIA learned that suspected Libyan agents had been spotted surveying 35 U.S. installations abroad--apparently casing them as potential targets for terrorism.
"That sealed it," said another official. "The lesson was that no matter what we've done, the guy feels absolutely no constraint."
Reagan continued to insist, however, that the Navy not use an attack by Kadafi as an excuse for massive retaliation, as some hawks had suggested.
"The main reason we haven't used force more often is Ronald Reagan," said a senior official. "I find he is less willing than many of the people around him to use force as a tool of foreign policy. He is very, very cautious."
At a meeting of the National Security Planning Group in mid-March, Reagan approved the overall plan his advisers had worked out. Weinberger then issued orders to the fleet, which began moving into position. At a final White House meeting last Saturday, the day before the exercise began, Reagan reaffirmed his go-ahead, officials said.
The orders gave Adm. Kelso broad discretion over how to respond to Libyan action, as long as it was "proportional."
"He was free to deal with missiles, naval attack or air threat," said a knowledgeable source, who asked not to be identified. "Had (Kadafi's) air force come out in numbers, there would have been a major air battle. There was a willingness to sweep the air clear of his planes."
"Beyond defending his force," he added, "the commander would have needed approval from Washington."
Another official said, "There were various stages of escalation considered in this thing." The possible stages included attacking Kadafi's air bases and destroying oil installations--but not attacking the capital of Tripoli or Kadafi himself, officials said.
The orders were also cautious, they said.
"We ran the first flight in (across the line of death) at night," when the Libyan air force does not fly, a senior official said. "The second was at dusk. The third was in daylight. Only (on the fourth crossing) did we send a ship south. It was intentionally done in a series, with lots of public notice, so we couldn't be accused of surprising anybody."
In another exercise of caution, when the Navy fired on Kadafi's missile base at Surt, it did so in the evening. "The Soviet technicians aren't there in the evenings," the senior official explained.
U.S. intelligence agencies had kept a close watch on Libya for months. "We were aware of the state of their alert at all times," said one source. "We knew that the (Libyan) air force was dispersed on the ground. We also knew where Kadafi was at all times."
In the end, Kadafi mounted only a moderate challenge to the fleet: a number of long-range missile firings now estimated by the Pentagon at "four or five"; a single probe by two MIG-25 jet fighters, which turned back without incident, and approaches from the ill-fated patrol boats.
"The level of action was where it was because Kadafi didn't raise it," one official said.
Whatever differences they may have had before Prairie Fire, after the fact officials were unanimous that it had been a striking success.
Reagan said, "The fundamental principle of freedom of the seas--so important to the economy and security of the free world--has been upheld in the face of a reckless and illegal Libyan attack."
Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a "flawless operation." The State Department said the action had "wide understanding" from other countries and attracted relatively muted criticism from the Arab world.
But its effect on Reagan's antiterrorism policy remains less clear because the Administration refused publicly to link its operation to its campaign to combat terrorism.
To officials who have always argued that military power should be used more readily against terrorism, the lesson is simple. "Kadafi has shown us that the only thing he responds to is force," said one.
To others, the lesson is ambiguous. "This will probably make the next decision (over the use of force) easier," said a senior official. "But retaliating against terrorism is difficult for us. We have to find the paper trail to fix the blame. We have to locate our own assets. We have to decide on targets. By that time, two weeks have gone by--and the passion has usually cooled a little bit."
On one point, however, the Administration's many voices speak in sobering unanimity.
"We're taking Kadafi's threats of more terrorism very seriously," said one aide. "When you go to the source of terrorism, he's going to respond with terrorism. . . . It's going to get worse before it gets better."