America as Vigilante

Reagan Administration officials were quick to deny any link between Wednesday’s shoot-down of two Libyan jet fighters by Navy planes over the Mediterranean and Washington’s rising concerns about an alleged chemical-warfare factory in the Libyan desert. That disavowal is unpersuasive. When the President of the United States publicly hints, as he did last week, that an American attack on the Libyan plant can’t be ruled out, then the stage is set for the kind of encounter that has now taken place. We don’t know whether the clash between Navy F-14s and Libyan MIG-23s was provoked or simply the product of nervous reaction. But to try to pass it off as no more than coincidental to the week-long political maneuvering that preceded it seems absurd.

U.S. officials are probably right in suggesting that the incident is now closed and unlikely in itself to produce either further confrontation or major political consequences. Still left unresolved, however, is the matter of the goings-on at what everyone agrees is some kind of chemical complex 40 miles south of Tripoli. The Reagan Administration says that the site is meant to produce chemical weapons, including mustard gas. Col. Moammar Kadafi, the Libyan dictator, says that the enterprise is dedicated to nothing more sinister than the production of pharmaceuticals. The prospect that chemical weapons might soon pass into the hands of a fanatic supporter of international terrorists is chilling. But is a prospect reason enough to threaten what by any reasonable legal standard could only be interpreted as an act of aggression?

The United States charges that a number of its allies, West Germany most prominently, have sold Libya materials or otherwise helped it to acquire a chemical-warfare capacity. Probably--although not certainly--the U.S. threat to blow up the Libyan plant is intended foremost to pressure allied governments into preventing further transfers of such materials or technology. Lobbying to control the proliferation of chemical weapons is both legitimate and responsible. But threatening to attack a country on the basis of evidence that this country’s friends say they so far find less than persuasive is neither.

A 1925 international agreement bans the use of chemical weapons. The Iran-Iraq War showed not only that this agreement can be ignored but also that its violations will go unpunished. This weekend a conference is due to open in Paris aimed at finding new ways to enforce a chemical-weapons ban. What has to be recognized for now, though, is that there is nothing in international law that forbids either the possession or the manufacture of chemical weapons. Libya, in short, is not committing outlawry by seeking to join a score of other states in acquiring chemical weapons.


The United States should of course spare no diplomatic and political efforts to try to isolate Libya from suppliers of chemical-warfare materials. But the United States is not the world’s policeman, or even the Mediterranean’s. Least of all, as an exponent of the rule and force of law, can it afford to be perceived as the world’s vigilante, ready to use its armed forces to try to do what its diplomacy has been unable to. Is Libya building chemical weapons? If so, let the United States present its evidence publicly and clearly. Do that, and it seems certain that those helping Libya will have no choice but to halt their dangerous and odious commerce.