Exaggerating Libya's Threat

After more than three years of rhetoric about what the Reagan administration was going to do about international terrorism, the President finally took action. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong target and thereby ensured that the policy will be ineffective.

There is no question that Libya funds, trains and exports terrorists and that Col. Moammar Khadafy is interested in undermining Western interests. Yet the Reagan administration has blown the Libyan dictator's importance out of all proportion to the threat he poses.

The nation of Libya is more than four times larger than California, but most of its land is uninhabited desert. Its population is only 4 million and the literacy rate is well under 50 percent. Although Khadafy has acquired more than $10 billion worth of military equipment in the last decade, most of it sits idle in warehouses because the army has neither the manpower nor the training to operate it. The only countries that are seriously threatened by the Libyan military are its weak neighbors, Chad and the Sudan. Beyond that, Khadafy poses more of a nuisance than a threat.

If the United States were really serious about cracking down on the supporters of international terrorism, it would be more concerned with the countries that harbor most of the terrorists: Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Unlike Libya, these countries are close to areas of strategic importance and now have become the primary hosts of the most militant terrorist factions in the Middle East. Since the United States has little influence over any of these countries, there is little that can be done beyond cutting off any existing aid and focusing international attention on their role in supporting terrorism.

The United States does have some leverage over other countries in the region that contribute to the scourge of terrorism.

The main offender is Saudi Arabia, which for several years has served as the Palestine Liberation Organization's principal benefactor. To a lesser extent, Egypt has begun to flirt with the PLO; recent reports suggest that Yasser Arafat's hit team, Force 17, the group responsible for the killing of three Israelis in Larnaca, is setting up shop in Cairo. Arafat's Fatah wing of the PLO is largely headquartered now in Amman, where King Hussein keeps a relatively tight rein on terrorist activities.

In each case, the United States can use its influence, particularly the threat of holding up aid and arms, to impress upon our "friends" the American resolve to combat terrorism and our desire to see the PLO expelled and cut off financially.

Without a willingness to use military force to deter terrorism, there is little else that can be done beyond attempting to deprive terrorists of their bases and financial support. These limited actions will not eliminate terrorism, and will have little impact if the lack of international cooperation persists. But they still represent a significant change from current policy.

The administration appears to have singled out Libya for punishment because, like the invasion of Grenada, it offers the possibility for an easy, low-risk victory. A serious antiterrorism policy that challenged the real powers in the Arab world would prove much more difficult and threaten diplomatic and economic relations with some of the "moderate" regimes.

Fighting terrorism is not easy, however, and a policy that only attacks one of its sources can be no more effective than a war against drugs directed against only one nation that exports illegal substances. Until the United States and its allies recognize this and decide that the benefits of deterring terrorism outweigh the potential costs, terrorists will continue to flourish in the Middle East.