NEW YORK — More than a year ago, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi was saying:
"This nation must teach America a lesson. We will teach America a lesson greater than the Vietnam lesson . . . We are not afraid of America. We are committed to abolishing the arrogance of America . . . We are coming to destroy the American Sixth Fleet."
Last week, an American expert on terrorism, Michael Ledeen, was saying: "The way you end state-sponsored terrorism is by changing regimes. We are obliged to challenge the Kadafis of this world." Kadafi funded and backed the Abu Nidal terrorist group that carried out the recent attacks on El Al counters at the Rome and Vienna airports, killing 19 people, five of them Americans.
The U.S. government once again is debating how to respond to these attacks. Many high officials and experts agree with Ledeen that the time has come for Kadafi's overthrow--or at least for military reprisal of some kind. Three options considered and rejected within the National Security Council last week were bombing Tripoli, carrying out narrow surgical strikes such as hitting terrorist training camps, or--most drastic--overthrowing Kadafi covertly or overtly, either by declaring war on his regime or by backing Lybian opposition groups. NSC insiders say that the Joint Chiefs of Staff considered the bombing, that the President's new national security adviser John M. Poindexter and Secretary of State George P. Shultz were strong advocates of military response.
One difficulty with military action, admitted a U.S. expert, is that "if the United States does anything and doesn't destroy all Kadafi's aircraft and submarines, Libya might well bomb Comiso, the base where U.S. cruise missiles are stationed in Sicily. Kadafi must not be shot unless he is killed. It's an all-or-nothing proposition."
After a lot of tough talk, President Reagan announced that he was opting for economic sanctions against Libya, not military measures
Some saw the President's decision as a victory for Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have been consistently been the most reluctant to use force. The President's decision against force was reminiscent of earlier refusals to retaliate after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon or after the hijacking of the TWA jet last spring, when a U.S. military man was killed on board.
"Having once again treated the problem as if it was brand new and having gone through the usual contingency planning, Secretary Weinberger once again reported the impossibility of using force," said defense analyst Edward Luttwak, "leaving the President with only weak options that will not serve as models for the European allies. Kadafi won when the U.S. advertised its decision not to use force."
One angry former senior U.S. official told me, "I would retaliate. I'd go after some training camps."
Another former high official said, "The U.S. has had acts of aggression committed against it by Libya and would be justified in using force. They train and send guerrillas from the Philippines to Iran. The culpability of Libya is irrefutable."
He was reflecting a widely held feeling when he went on to complain about the lack of cooperation the United States is receiving from its European allies in regard to economic sanctions. This official pointed out that in a slack oil market, the European allies could well buy oil from other sources.
The Israelis, who have always retaliated immediately following terrorist acts, in this case behaved like the Reagan Administration. They did nothing but talk; Prime Minister Peres called for joint action against terrorism, saying Israel was tired of being the world's policeman against terrorism.
Kadafi has been in the terrorism business for years, having funded and supported terrorist groups from Lebanon to Ireland to Nicaragua. In 1984 he boasted in a speech of providing Libyan arms and support to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua "because they are fighting America at its doorstep."
But the colonel's favorite cause is the destruction of the state of Israel: "Brethren, we shall continue to mobilize the forces of the Arab nation, "to destroy the so-called state of Israel at any cost. Brethren, no matter what the world says . . . about this artificial entity, we Arabs do not recognize what is called the state of Israel . . . we shall work day and night to destroy this hostile Zionist entity."
Kadafi has arms; he has bought billions of dollars worth of weapons from the Soviet Union--tanks, aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft systems.
President Reagan, insisted one senior State Department official, has not ruled out the use of force against Libya in the long run: "The United States isn't taking military action against Libya before it has made a proper case. To overthrow Kadafi is to declare war and you've got to decide Kadafi is engaged in aggression against the United States. I think a case could be made but it must be done carefully. The President has not decided not to use force."