For an administration that has appeared almost baffled in developing an overall strategic design for its foreign policy, the shooting down of two Soviet-built Libyan SU22s in the Gulf of Sidra reveals what the administration does best: deal firmly with a tactical threat in a manner that both protects American interests and upholds American dignity. It is a style both novel and welcome.
When driven to the use of force, it has done so surely and without apology. In this regard its decisive action stands in vivid contrast with the wobbling in dealing with the Col. Muammar Qaddifi of prior administrations going back to 1969.
The international ramifications of the shootdown are overwhelmingly favorable -- with remarkably few disadvantages to recount. A few tears may be shed for Qaddafi in South Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, and by Moscow and its other clients. Nonetheless, Qaddafi's behavior has been so obstreperous and disruptive that firm U.S. action will generally be welcomed by his immediate neighbors. In the recent past, those neighbors have experienced direct invasion, annexation, covert military operations, attempted assassinations and (in four cases) the attempted overthrow of the regime (one successful).
Beyond his behavior toward his neighbors, Qaddafi has been the most prominent supporter and financier of insurrection and terrorism. Moreover, he has established Libya as a forward base for a vast arsenal of Soviet weaponary -- tanks and aircraft far beyond the capacity of his own forces to man. Airstrips have been built throughout the country, capable of handling the largest aircraft -- highlighting the possibility of external "volunteers" being rapidly introudced to be matched up with the prepositioned stockpile of equipment.
For a dozen years, the U.S. response has been faltering. Qaddifi's takeover of Wheelus Ari Force Base in 1970 went virtually unprotested. In the early 1970s, his unilateral proclamiation that the Gulf of Sidra comprised Libyan territorial waters out to 200 miles led, under State Department prodding, to a pattern of avoidance that simultaneously involved a partial acceptance of his claims and the partial abridgement of our own and international rights. The low point was reached in 1978-79 with the sordid Billy Carter affair and the partially unconnected decision to reward the burning of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli with the unprecedented ushering of the Libyan charge d'affairs into the Oval Office for a sympathetic chat -- rather than the standard dressing-down by an assistant secretary of state. The feebleness to date of the American response has only served to encourage Qaddafi's depredations.
The decision to respond to Qaddifi's use of firepower was therefore wise under the circumstances. We should, however, be under no illusion that the matter will end there. Given Qaddifi's character and the conscious modeling of his behavior on the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, it is nigh-on inevitable that he will attempt to retaliate in some manner for this humiliation.
Happily, the widespread excess of oil capacity reflecting the price surge after the Iranian revolution and the world economic slowdown has struck from his hands what under other circumstances, was the obvious response of reduced oil production. Happily, too, given its preoccupations elsewhere, Moscow will likely have little stomach for backing adventurous behavior of Qaddifi toward his neighbors, using the stockpiled arms and logistical infrastructure. One worrisome possibility is action against the American oil firms (like Nasser's seizure of the canal) or its employees. Reflecting the current oil glut, however, the companies appear all to complacent. Qaddifi is no likely to be constrained by normal calculations of economic rationality.
Even more likely is an intensification of support for terrorist or insurrectionary activities. After its good start, the administration should be prepared both to expect the worst and to stand firm in the face of further unpleasantness.