Official Washington Assesses Itself

<i> Richard B. Straus, a Washington-based journalist, is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey. </i>

Last week in Washington it was better to be British than French. It was OK to be an Arab if you were quiet. But it was best of all to be Ronald Reagan.

The President’s decision to launch air strikes against Libya last Monday generated support from virtually every quarter. “The evidence was absolute,” said a liberal Democratic senator. “The raid was totally justified.” As for concerns raised by some of his colleagues about the lack of full consultation with congressional leaders, this senator declared, “Reagan did what any other President would and should have.”

At the White House, amid the frenzy of dealing with conflicting reports on the political and military situation in Libya, aides took time out to congratulate themselves and their President for “having crossed the threshold” in their war against terrorism.

There is little doubt that the decision bears Reagan’s personal imprint. One sign was that long-time disbelievers in the efficacy of U.S. military action against terrorism hardly raised a murmur in opposition. A senior White House aide explained Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger’s newfound enthusiasm for military action: “Somewhere along the line Cap put his finger in the air and detected a hurricane.”


The hurricane was generated by what one senior White House official called “the persuasive and pervasive” evidence of Libyan complicity, not only in the Berlin attack, but in dozens of others in the making, worldwide. “The President was enraged,” said one White House staffer.

The results of the raid also satisfied the President and his tough-minded advisers. “We went after (Moammar) Kadafi’s Praetorian Guard,” said a senior Administration official. “In so doing, we demonstrated we were prepared to take the war directly to him.” This official and others were quick to note, however, that Kadafi himself was not the intended target. “If we had wanted to kill Kadafi, we would have hit his residences throughout the country.”

Still, in taking the war directly to Kadafi, the Administration should have few illusions about the difficulties ahead. With the Libyan leader emerging apparently unscathed, U.S. officials must be prepared for further battle. One Administration planner said blandly, “We are ready to do it again. We haven’t hit all the terrorist infrastructure, or the oil facilities.”

For all the brave talk, however, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. One advocate of strong military action still questioned whether the “means we are able and willing to commit are sufficient to achieve the object we seek.” Put another way, does the Administration have the staying power to see its actions through to their logical conclusion--the elimination of the Kadafi regime?


Foremost among the Administration’s foreign supporters is the government of Israel. Yet some U.S. officials question whether Americans are prepared to join the embattled Israelis in the anti-terrorist trenches. With America’s far-flung interests, and thus greater vulnerability, the United States could never become, like Israel, a “garrison state.”

Moreover, current overwhelming public support for the President’s action, these officials consider the move fundamentally unpopular. “We are going to be in deep trouble once the short-term euphoria wears off,” predicted one Administration insider.

Further military action will also result in additional civilian casualties, military experts predict. “Anyone who uses the term ‘surgical strikes,’ has to be talking about civil war surgery,” said one. Kadafi himself remains an enigma. “This is a very personal war,” said a State Department expert. “And we don’t know whether our actions have frightened Kadafi or made him angrier.”

Kadafi’s Arab neighbors are, if anything, more apprehensive. “It is a very severe move when you strike against the leadership of an Arab country,” said an Egyptian diplomat. Another Arab diplomat, expanded on this idea: “You Americans are setting an uncomfortable precedent for deposing a leader. In effect, you are justifying Syrian attacks on Jordan and Iranian attacks on the gulf states.”


Still, this diplomat noted the Arab reaction so far has been relatively mild. The Saudis “deplored” but did not “condemn” the U.S. raid. This is a diplomatic nuance noted often by Arab diplomats. Another Arab source confided that at least three moderate Arab states had instructed their ambassadors in Washington not to participate in any formal protest to the State Department.

“The outcry is a lot less than we expected,” a State Department Arab affairs expert said. “The good colonel (Kadafi) is not all that popular on the street.” Another State Department official pointed out that while “some hot heads are beating the drum of anti-Americanism, last October’s Israeli raid on Tunis (on PLO headquarters there) caused more problems for us.”

U.S. officials also profess to be unfazed by the reaction in Europe. While the Thatcher government in Great Britain has not received anything like the domestic support given Reagan, American officials as well as British diplomats dismiss that opposition as a temporary phenomenon. “We recognize that force is not the thing for the ‘80s,” said one British diplomat, “but there is a growing trend toward confronting terrorism and we are just a few steps ahead.”

Moreover, U.S. officials assume that European public opinion is even now shifting in their direction. The French government, on the defensive since it banned the over-flight of the U.S. F-111s, has taken great pains to show its own steadfastness against terrorism. In Washington, one well connected French diplomat insisted, “We have our own policy in fighting terrorism. It is discreet and precise. No one should doubt our determination to oppose Libya.”


Therefore, although America’s friends and allies are not marching lock step with the Administration, there is no groundswell of opposition either. At home, at least for the time being, there is unified support for the President. The next move is Kadafi’s.