A few Americans still live in little bungalows behind neatly trimmed lawns in one of three oil company compounds in suburban Tripoli, but most work in the remote desert oil fields, where they put in a 33-day shift and then get four weeks' paid leave in Europe. Salaries average $100,000 a year, plus housing.
Few of the Americans seem to have much sympathy for Kadafi. Yet they think the Reagan Administration is exaggerating the threat posed by the Libyan leader. They say that Washington's fixation with Kadafi only encourages him to be bolder.
"I've been here for years and I've never had anything bad happen with the Libyans, and I've never seen any terrorist camps, either," one oil worker said. "Kadafi just enjoys annoying Reagan, that's all."
It is an assessment shared by many Western diplomats in Tripoli and businessmen who often visit here. Without exception, nearly a score of diplomats and businessmen interviewed recently expressed concern that the Reagan Administration fails to distinguish between reality and rhetoric, and thus has an oversimplified view of Kadafi that works against U.S. interests and impedes efforts to isolate the Libyan leader.
U.S. Policy Criticized
Last month's military confrontation in the Gulf of Sidra, they said, was an example of the way U.S. policy toward Libya undercuts its own aims.
The U.S. strategy, officially denied but later confirmed by sources in Washington, was to provoke a confrontation that would add to the discontent with Kadafi said to exist among the 73,000 members of Libya's armed forces. In the past six months there has been at least one attempted coup against Kadafi, and Washington evidently hoped to provoke another, the sources said.
However, according to the diplomats, the Gulf of Sidra crisis had just the opposite effect. It rallied Libyans around Kadafi and distracted attention from the economic problems that had been fomenting discontent with his regime.
"The U.S. totally misread the situation," one diplomat said.
Also, the U.S. crusade against Kadafi is pushing him closer to the Russians than he might otherwise be, the diplomat said, and added:
"Despite the military aid he receives from them, Kadafi has never been fond of the Russians, and has always turned down their requests for a base here. But since January, when tension in the Gulf began to rise, Soviet naval ships have been stationed in Tripoli harbor. This never happened before, and it is another step in an unwelcome direction."
Looking Toward Moscow
Other diplomats agreed that Kadafi is being forced by the confrontation with the United States to rely more heavily on Moscow for protection. They predict that the Soviet presence here will increase.
Caught in the middle of this conflict are more than a score of U.S. companies and the Americans who work for them in Libya.
U.S. commercial interests in Libya are substantial. Four U.S. oil companies, Occidental Petroleum, Conoco, Marathon and Amerada Hess, have assets in Libya estimated at $1 billion.
A group of engineering and construction firms, among them Kaiser Construction of Oakland, Calif., Brown & Root and Price Brothers, were owed an estimated $20 million when Reagan ordered them to suspend all dealings with Libya in January. There is no indication when or even if these companies will be paid.
The Administration apparently quietly undercut its own sanctions in February by approving temporary licenses for the American firms to continue to function in Libya to prevent their walking away and providing the Kadafi government with a windfall.
A Treasury Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said "temporary" means that the American firms may wait until they arrange a fair and appropriate sale with some Libyan entity. The official added that he did not believe there was a deadline for such sales, but any profits realized in this period are supposed to go into an escrow account.
Despite the rhetoric, the Libyans have also sought to keep the door open to economic cooperation with the United States by not retaliating and seizing the assets of U.S. companies here.
"The Libyans very much want to continue their relations with American companies and individuals," said a Western businessman who comes to Libya often. "They have done everything they can to assure a smooth transition."
On a personal basis, Libyans and Americans seem to get along just fine.
An American oilman, talking about the Gulf of Sidra crisis, said: "I felt no animosity at work. Hell, we even joked about this bay, or whatever it is. Now that both bad boys have done their thing, we hope this will be the end of it."
A Libyan merchant, waiting until everyone else had left his store, expressed similar feelings.
"Look," he said, "this thing is between Moammar (Kadafi) and Reagan. Between the Libyan people and the American people, there is no problem."