Our Middle East Policy Has Changed, So Why Hide Behind Bullying of Libya?

<i> Lisa Anderson is a professor of political science with the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. </i>

The downing of two Libyan MIG-23 fighters by U.S. Navy jets came on the heels of weeks of speculation about possible American responses to a soon-to-be-opened Libyan chemical plant thought capable of producing chemical weapons, including mustard gas.

The Reagan Administration’s assertion that the dogfight and the concern over the chemical plant were unrelated strains credulity, particularly since it is reminiscent of similar denials of provocative intentions in the earlier campaigns against “Libyan-sponsored terrorism” that culminated in the bombing of Col. Moammar Kadafi’s headquarters in April, 1986. Of course they are related, although the downing of the planes will not--and should not--be the end of American concern about the chemical plant.

The Administration seems to have more than one aim in renewing its campaign against Kadafi at this juncture. Several of the aims are laudable, and none are wellserved by this revived Libya-bashing. The likelihood that Kadafi intentionally provoked a confrontation with the United States is remote: He was profoundly shaken by what he believes was an American attempt on his life in 1986, and, while he has not abandoned his opposition to the U.S. presence in the Middle East, neither does he take it lightly. Indeed, he had given every indication of being worried about the recent American threats against the chemical factory. That he does not know how to mollify the United States was clear in his effort to win favor by engineering the release of two French girls held hostage in Lebanon and by suggesting an on-site tour of the factory itself. The first action merely confirmed suspicions that he is influential among terrorists; the second did not amount to a genuine offer of inspection. Nonetheless, Kadafi is not behaving as if he is interested in taking on the 6th Fleet.

So why is the Administration making an issue of Libya now? The United States is right to be concerned about the possibility that Kadafi’s regime may be capable of producing extremely dangerous and destructive chemical weapons, just as we are--or should be--concerned about such potential danger around the world. Many benign and easily manufactured chemicals can be diverted to quite horrible uses. The proliferation of pharmaceutical and pesticide production in the developing world merits much more monitoring, inspection and possibly control than it has thus far received. The United States has expressed support for international efforts on chemical weapons, but we should be doing much more to ensure a concerted and reasoned response on the part of the world community. U.S. military posturing over the Mediterranean while threatening to unilaterally “take out” the Libyan factory does little to further this cause.


It is thus not from the point of view of chemical-weapons proliferation that the revival of American bullying of Libya is best understood, but rather from the perspective of the overall American position in the Middle East. In the past, displays of resolve in the face of supposed threats from the isolated if meddlesome leader of a small and relatively weak Arab state have served the Reagan Administration as symbolic illustrations of a variety of its regional policies--opposition to terrorism, hostility toward Soviet influence in the Middle East, and the willingness to forgo lucrative economic ties with wealthy oil producers on behalf of Israeli security. Of course, American policy in the Middle East was never so simple, but hostility toward Libya provided a simple and satisfying summary of what many wished American policy to be.

In response to the desire for more options in the Arab-Israeli arena--and perhaps, as is widely believed in the Middle East, to greater sympathy for the Arab world--on behalf of the incoming Bush Administration President Reagan last month reversed the longstanding American policy of refusal to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization and chose to interpret PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s declarations of moderation as fulfilling American requirements for opening a dialogue. Yet there are many, both inside and outside the Reagan Administration who still quite sincerely believe the rhetoric depicting the PLO as a Soviet-backed terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel.

How best to signal that the discussions with the PLO do not constitute a repudiation of everything that the United States has said it stood for in the Middle East over the last eight years? Find an easy mark, one that has been painted with many of the same colors as the PLO over the years--unfair to both parties, it should be noted--and start a fight.

Libya fits the bill. Thus the complaints about Libya’s chemical factory and the dogfight over the Mediterranean are not really about Libya as such--although, in welcoming our efforts to make him seem more important than he is, Kadafi has always made a willing target. Rather, they reflect an American wish to reassure ourselves and anyone who may be watching that we have not really changed our policy in the region.

In fact, we have changed our policy--and, in the view of many observers, including many deeply sympathetic to Israel, for the better. But, whether it is for better or worse, it behooves the American government to own up to the policy and to discuss it openly rather than to hide it behind a smokescreen of bullets and bluster, particularly about so serious a question as chemical weapons. That is what “standing tall” in world affairs really requires.