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Europe Sees Libyan Threat in Less Than Catastrophic Terms

January 12, 1986|William Pfaff | William Pfaff is an American journalist based in Paris

PARIS — The Paris daily, Liberation, carried the headline Thursday, "Reagan Fires a Blank at Kadafi." That was one cynical European reaction to the announcement of U.S. economic sanctions against Libya. The front page, though, is not where Libya appears in most of the West European press this weekend. What's on the front pages is the dramatic resignation of Britain's defense minister and the big drop in Wall Street prices. To the extent that Libya is big news, it is because the United States is pushing the Europeans to take Col. Moammar Kadafi just as seriously as does Washington.

Why don't the Europeans take Libya and sanctions seriously? First, many simply refuse to believe that sanctions will accomplish much. Washington argues that economic sanctions are justifiable as deterrents and punishment for terrorism, but that even if they prove ineffective, they make an important gesture of moral outrage against Kadafi and his complicity in terrorism.

The moral argument is more troubling to Europeans, but not decisively so. It is an old political assumption in Europe that foreign relations are not an area where moral outrage or uplift is appropriately, or even very usefully, applied. They believe that power and interests count in international relations, not feelings.

Another reason the West Europeans have distanced themselves from the United States in this matter is that they suspect it may prove one more American media-hyped frenzy which in a few days or month will have been shoved aside in favor of some new passion or popular outrage. Americans have enthusiasms--frequently short-lived. Kadafi is this week's sensation, as he was four years ago when the White House itself was being fortified against a mysteriously anticipated assault on the part of Libya. Nothing came of that and no explanation was ever offered as to what it was all about.

Europeans simply refuse to treat Libya as a major force in world affairs. They note that it is a nation totally dependent upon foreign oil purchases, with less than 8% of its land arable, most of that pastoral, without other known resources and total armed forces roughly the size of the U.S. Marine Corps--forces heavily dependent upon mercenaries and expatriates. The colonel's threats to set the Mediterranean aflame should anyone dare attack him seem to these Europeans a fantasy or delusion.

Finally, there is a European history of relations with Libya, and with the Arab world, which is not at all that of the United States. America's sole past encounter with what now is Libya involved Barbary pirates and the Marines landing on the shores of Tripoli--not so brilliant a show as the Marine Corps hymn implies (it took five years of hard fighting to get a negotiated settlement) but it at least stopped U.S. ships from paying tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli for the use of the Mediterranean. It was thus a decisive affair, of a kind Washington would like to be able to repeat today.

Of the West Europeans, Italy is the country now most concerned with Libya. This is not because the Libyan government has invested in Fiat and sells its oil to Italians, but because there has been a modern history of war and oppression which deeply marked both countries. Italy waged a campaign of colonial conquest in Libya beginning in 1910-1911. The Italians succeeded in subjugating the interior of Libya only in 1913, and after World War I had to conduct another bloody campaign of pacification that lasted until 1930. The desert battles that Britons, Germans, and Italians fought in World War II were mostly in Libya, from which Italy had invaded Egypt in 1940.

After the war, Libya became a major Western base in the Mediterranean. When Kadafi took power in 1969 he was widely thought to be a client of the Central Intelligence Agency. It is even possible that he was. He was ferociously anti-communist during the early part of his rule. The U.S. ambassador of the time said that Kadafi provided "important assets in the struggle against Soviet influence and communism in the Arab world." He lent U.S.-built aircraft to Pakistan during the 1971 India-Pakistan War--when the United States "leaned" towards Pakistan--and worked with Egypt's Anwar Sadat against a 1972 left-wing coup attempt in the Sudan. He thus illustrates why Europeans tend to be cynical about the permanence of international relationships.

It is in the grand tradition of innocent and puritanical American reaction to European worldliness and cynicism that Washington columnists today think that commercial interest and political cowardice are enough to explain why West European governments have not given Washington full backing. As Henry James pointed out, in another context, things are a little more complicated than that.

Actually, the West Europeans are not fools. Europeans have been the principal victims of terrorism outside the Middle East. More of them have died under terrorist guns and bombs than have Americans. They would be delighted to put an end to this. Their problem is that they do not for a minute believe that punishing Kadafi is going to have a constructive effect to that end. They think that it is the kind of noisy activity that people engage in when they cannot think of anything serious to do.

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