When Might Isn’t Enough : Community of Condemnation Is Best Answer to a Kadafi

<i> Robert E. Hunter is the director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. </i>

The Reagan Administration is ending as it began--preoccupied with terrorism and especially with Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi. But the persistent confrontation with Libya is also a mark of dilemmas in dealing with a growing range of threats that confound the United States.

American power and purpose have helped preserve basic interests for more than four decades. Partly as a result, we have recently seen breakthroughs in U.S.-Soviet relations and progress in reducing or resolving regional conflicts.

It is thus remarkable that the world’s most powerful nation is so frequently bedeviled by the acts of small countries, shadowy groups, even individuals. In recent years we have often been bewildered by terrorist acts against American persons and property, while a $300-billion defense budget seems either insufficient or irrelevant to counter them.

Now the United States is increasingly concerned about the spreading capacity to produce chemical weapons and, conceivably, about a marriage between these poisons and the methods of terrorism. Once again, Kadafi is chief culprit. And once again, there is no clearly effective course to pursue.


Like it or not, many rising challenges to U.S. national security and well-being will not yield to assertions of military power or other unilateral U.S. actions. For a nation used to providing for its own security, this is unwelcome news. It is particularly frustrating when we are confronted by terrorism abroad. An outrage committed by a handful of individuals is beamed into American living rooms. It grips the nation’s consciousness and produces demands for remedy.

The temptation is to try the old methods and to give at least the appearance of action. In recent weeks, the United States has steadily raised tensions over a chemical plant that is being built in Libya, and President Reagan even threatened to destroy it. The Administration’s goal has been to demonstrate, both for Libya and for others, that it is deadly serious. Indeed, the timing of the U.S. war of nerves was linked to a 140-nation conference on chemical weapons, convened in Paris this weekend at Reagan’s request.

Thus, without anyone’s planning it, last week’s aerial battle between American and Libyan aircraft has ensured rapt attention for U.S. arguments at the Paris conference. As happened after the April, 1986, bombing of Libya, there is grumbling abroad about U.S. use of force, even among close allies. But they are now also more likely to accommodate U.S. demands for cooperation.

A show of force to underpin diplomacy is as old as history, and it still has its uses. But in combating either terrorism or the production of chemical weapons, it cannot be enough. If the United States can’t gain satisfaction on the Libyan factory, it can take military action. But what would it do next? Given the pervasive nature of terrorism, the relative ease of producing some chemical weapons and the spread of this capability, the United States could face repeated dilemmas about using force--not to retaliate against others’ actions but to counter threats that are only presumed. Such a policy of preemption cannot be sustained--either politically or morally.

The lesson from current dilemmas is that the United States can succeed only by enlisting the support of a broad range of other countries, which must be convinced that they share a critical interest in combating terrorism and preventing any use of chemical weapons. They mustbecome prepared for common action, a “collective security” in an area where the efforts of one nation on its own can never have lasting effect.

For U.S. policy, this means putting a premium on multilateral effort more than on unilateral action, on exhausting diplomacy before considering preemptive military force, and on trying to reduce the causes of conflict as well as dealing with the results.

To help create a community of condemnation, the United States must also lead from the political and moral high ground--regaining, for example, a reputation for veracity. It is striking that the Administration has had so much difficulty convincing most of the European allies that Libya can soon produce chemical weapons. Many among the allies feel that they have been misled in the past, or that the threat has been exaggerated, or that Washington is addressing a domestic audience more than seeking comprehensive answers to a complex problem.

U.S. policy must also be made more consistent. So far as we know, Libya has not used poison gas or provided it to others. But in recent years, Iraq has used chemical weapons, thereby stimulating new interest, especially in the Middle East, in this “poor man’s atomic bomb.” Yet the U.S. government showed little interest so long as only Iranians were victims. Several other countries, including Syria, have the capacity to engage in chemical warfare, but Washington no more wants to confront Damascus on this issue than it has on the question of Syria’s role in state-sponsored terrorism. If poison gas is to be outlawed, there can be no exceptions.

Above all, to deal with the increasing challenge of unconventional threats means recognizing the problem for what it is--a long and difficult struggle to forge an effective alliance of like-minded states--instead of engaging in the delusion that there is any military quick-fix.