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U.S. Strike Against Libya Is No Comfort to Europe

<i> Adm</i> .<i> Sir James Eberle is director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London</i>

When President Reagan imposed economic sanctions against Libya after the Christmas bombings at the Vienna and Rome airports, there was little enthusiasm in Europe for his action. It was not that the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, was disliked any less here thanhe was in Washington, but that most Europeans considered economic sanctions to be neither appropriate nor likely to be effective. Furthermore, the Europeans were concerned that the rhetoric accompanying the U.S. action was somewhat warlike. To people in Europe, international terrorism is seen as a challenge to society to be met by the processes of civil law and order--and not, as the Reagan Administration seemed to suggest, a threat to U.S. national security to be dealt with by military means.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that last week’s action by American warships in the Gulf of Sidra has drawn few echoes of support in Western Europe. There are some, and perhaps many, who share the evident delight of President Reagan, and of almost all Americans, that their detested foe, Kadafi, has acted in such a way that he could be given a dose of hisown medicine and vigorously slapped down. But, as most Europeans see it, the President’s action in sending U.S. warships and aircraft into the Gulf of Sidra was an act of deliberate provocation, the results of which have now earned him a rich reward in terms of his personal political standing. It is suggested that it may even be sufficient to swing the balance of the President’s battle to maintain increasing defense expenditures and to provide military aid to the contras in Nicaragua. Thus the actions of the U.S. 6th Fleet have undoubtedly been a success in terms of domestic U.S. politics.

But Europeans do not see such matters in terms of domestic U.S. politics. They involve events that take place on Europe’s doorstep, after all. The question has therefore to be asked, “Was the operation sensible in terms of international, regional and global politics?” And the almost certain answer for Europeans is “No, it was not.”

It has inevitably resulted in a generally increased feeling of world tension--just at a time when the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting seemed to offer a more stable, less confrontational relationship between East and West.

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It allows Kadafi, whom even the Soviets dislike, to strengthen his own position by calling for his countrymen’s support in the fight against U.S. imperialism.

It offers to the Soviet Union new opportunities to present itself, rather than the United States, as the principal champion of world peace. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s offer to discuss the withdrawal of both Soviet and U.S. warships from the Mediterranean was a very early response. We shall no doubt see more.

It provides a much-needed rallying point for Arab unity.

And it reinforces existing stresses within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, some of whose members are becoming increasingly concerned that the United States is misusing its NATO position in the Mediterranean to pursue policies that serve only the U.S. national interest.

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It is, of course, of importance that Kadafi’s claim to the Gulf of Sidra as part of Libyan territorial waters should not be allowed to go evermore unchallenged. But whether this was the right time, and the right way, to challenge it remains a very open question. Timing is of vital importance in politics, and, although there is always some reason for any potentially unpopular act to be considered “untimely,” it is difficult for Europeans to see the logic in the decision to pursue, at this time, a high-profile program against infringement of the traditional freedom of the seas. The recent exercising by U.S. warships of the right of innocent passage through Soviet territorial waters in the Black Sea was seen by Europeans much more as an act of bravado and machismo than as a serious attempt to contribute to upholding international law and a more stable international order.

But, most important of all, the U.S. action provides evidence to the growing list of those in Europe who see American foreign policy as increasingly driven by domestic U.S. politics, with little apparent understanding of its global effect, and who are being forced to conclude that the Reagan Administration is simply not interested in reaching any agreements with the Soviet Union other than on its own terms and regardless of Soviet interests.

There is a growing body of opinion in Europe that sees sufficient evidence to believe that the Soviet Union may now be genuinely seeking a reduction of tension and of levels of armaments. If this is so, then we could be missing a major opportunity by failing to make appropriate responses. As a senior Soviet official in London said on hearing of the Gulf of Sidra encounter, “And this sort of action doesn’t help, either.”


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