GOING AFTER Col. Qaddafi for a violation of naval innocent passage is like going after Al Capone for income tax evasion. In neither case is the indicated offense the true basis of the accused's menace to society, but the offense offers the forces of law a convenient if artificial method of cutting the offender down to size. This is at any rate the Reagan administration's evident rationale for setting up Muammar Qaddafi in the Gulf of Sidra yesterday.
As an operation measured in its own terms, the American action was unexceptionable. The claim of free passage gave it full color of law. The amount of force that the United States mustered at the scene -- a massive fleet of three carrier groups -- was more than adequate to care for any conceivable contingency. The Americans determined that the Libyans fired first. The response seems to have been proportional to the attack. Execution, by the available accounts, was efficient. If Russians were hit -- at the missile site, for instance -- it was not because they had been insufficiently warned.
Nor can there be the slightest doubt that, in the larger context of his flagrantly revolutionary international role, Col. Qaddafi richly deserves any punishment visited upon him. By his espousal of terrorism and subversion across a wide swath of nations, he has forfeited any fair claim to enjoying the privileges of the international community.
Why is it, then, that we and, we suspect, a good number of other Americans entertain misgivings about the operation? On our part, it is because we are not sure the political aspects were as carefully planned as the military ones seem to have been.
Regrettably but undeniably, Col. Qaddafi is able to draw on deep differences of status and outlook in order to focus the emotions of his own people, and others in the Arab and Islamic worlds, upon the alleged depredations of . . . the United States. The fine points of maritime law are no barrier to the rage that Mr. Qaddafi can cause to flow against a country which is not everywhere seen, as it usually sees itself, as a respecter of the rights of others. What President Reagan may have intended as a measured comeuppance can too easily be received as a humiliation for which an avenging "justice" must be done. Col. Qaddafi cannot be treated as a rational actor who will take into account risks and costs in the Western manner.
An American president cannot ignore considerations of American pride and global responsibility. Nor can an American president ignore considerations of local passion. What happened yesterday in the Gulf of Sidra was an event in a sequence whose next developments are particularly uncertain.