THE REAGAN administration has made no secret of its desire to see the regime of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi toppled. So far, various coup attempts have failed, but the question remains: How stable is Qaddafi's Libya?

The answer is that Qaddafi has severe -- and perhaps fatal -- domestic problems. He's unpopular with the Libyan military, the middle class, and much of the rest of the country. He's ripe for a coup, and my guess is that he'll be gone within a year. Ironically, he's surviving now largely because of the escalating American campaign against him -- which has rallied patriotic Libyans to support a regime they otherwise dislike.

Understanding Qaddafi's domestic situation could prove crucial in the unfolding American confrontation with Libya. And it could help answer the critical questions facing the Reagan administration: Why have diplomatic and economic pressures failed thus far to alter Qaddafi's behavior? What impact will American military action have? What are the prospects for a change of regime, and what would a new regime look like?

Qaddafi symbolizes a revolution that has failed. The oil glut of the 1980s and the resulting decline in revenues are part of the story. The Libyans had to make do last year with less than a third of the $22 billion they earned in 1981. But Qaddafi has been his own worst enemy. His radical program for transforming Libya has gone sour, and even if revenues were suddenly to skyrocket -- permitting the regime to restock the country's empty shelves with consumer goods -- he would not be able to win back the support he has lost.

Qaddafi has been lucky to hold onto power as long as he has. Since the beginning of the 1980s, there have been over a dozen serious attempts to spark his overthrow, ranging from military mutinies to assassination attempts.

Disputes within the inner circle of the regime now appear to be increasing and discontent within the army seems to be growing. Qaddafi's manipulation of military commands, his threats to dismantle the regular military establishment and "arm the people" and his favoritism toward his relatives have all contributed to a serious malaise in the military. It is thus unlikely that Qaddafi will die in bed -- but it's noteworthy that very few of the attempts against him have taken place while the international spotlight has been focused on Libya.

Qaddafi's eccentricities begin with his political philosophy. Unlike most Libyans, he is a committed ideologue. He is opposed to the international status quo, which he considers exploitative and unjust, and dedicated to the implementation at home and export abroad of the utopian socialism described in the "Green Book," his philosophy of revolution.

Qaddafi has always acted on what he considers principle. As such he is almost impervious to pressure. Indeed, he apparently thinks that, like a modern Robin Hood, his outlaw status confirms the righteousness of his cause. From his perspective, domestic opposition, far from proving that his policies are in any way damaging to Libya, merely demonstrates the continued influence of reactionary elements in the population; similarly, foreign condemnation is only to be expected in a world dominated by imperialist powers.

In part because he is remote from the concerns of ordinary Libyans, Qaddafi has lost popularity year by year. Libyans at first applauded his 1969 coup against a corrupt and inefficient monarchy and welcomed his early commitment to egalitarian distribution of Libya's substantial oil revenues. But Qaddafi soon found the popular response to his revolutionary aspirations disappointing. He therefore redoubled his efforts to recast Libya in the revolutionary mold. He issued the three slim volumes of the "Green Book" in the late 1970s, in an effort to impose the dictates of his Third International Theory -- so called to distinguish it from both capitalism and communism -- on the Libyan masses.

By 1978, Qaddafi's vision of direct democracy was in place and he declared the country a Jamahiriyyah, or "state of the masses." The people were instructed to rule themselves through a system of committees and congresses. In order to ensure that no Libyan profited at the expense of another, private firms were turned over to workers' committees, retail trade was abolished, rental property was seized, bank accounts were frozen, and most recently, land-tenure records were destroyed. These economic measures have forced virtually every Libyan family to participate in the black market; the prevalence of special dispensations has made a mockery of Qaddafi's early commmitment to cleaning up corruption.

Not surprisingly, these policies have led to widespread disaffection, particularly among the formerly propertied and the well-educated. The resulting brain drain -- 50,000 of the country's 3 million people are said to live abroad -- has deprived Libya of many of its most talented technocrats and provided a recruiting ground for the several opposition groups in exile. At home, indications of discontent have been met with increasing repression. Unauthorized public gatherings are forbidden, the cafes and bazaars are closed, and theatrical and sporting events have been suspended -- in order to prevent popular disaffection from coalescing into organized opposition.

An efficient East German-run domestic intelligence service operates in concert with Qaddafi's loyal followers in revolutionary committees and revolutionary guards to root out what opposition activity does develop. Qaddafi started executing civilians in 1976. In recent years, televised hangings of political dissidents have become increasingly commonplace, as discontent has grown.

But disaffection with the Qaddafi regime has not eroded Libyan patriotism and national pride. On the contrary, Libyans, like the citizens of many new nations, are quite sensitive about their national honor, quick to rally around the flag and to take offense at what they view as slights from foreigners. Moreover, Libyan national identity was forged in resistance to imperialism, specifically during Italy's brutal colonial war of conquest in the 1920s and '30s -- in which Libya may have lost as much as half its population to war casualties, famine and emigration. That the Italians were relieved of their Libyan colony only after the devastating North Africa campaigns of World War II further contributed to the bitterness and cynicism among many Libyans. This history makes Libyans wary when westerners talk grandly about the rules of conduct among civilized nations.

The American strategy is to make it too costly for Libya to continue to follow Qaddafi's policies. But this approach may be misconceived. The Libyans seem willing to pay quite a high price to avoid the humiliation of capitulating to a foreign power. The price they're willing to pay probably includes putting up with Qaddafi and his antics.

Libyans also feel that they can afford to suffer the losses that will be inevitable in a prolonged confrontation with the U.S. By historical standards Libya remains fairly wealthy -- this is, after all, a country whose per-capita income was $50 a year at independence in 1951 -- and the prospect of financial losses is not particularly worrisome. Nor is the prospect of losing military hardware. Qaddafi's $20 billion spending spree has provided the country with more than enough equipment to spare in demonstrating resolve against the United States. Moreover, for a country whose principal export at independence was the scrap metal collected on the World War II battlefields, the loss of military hardware in a good cause isn't a big problem.

In fact, the only truly unacceptable price for continued backing of Qaddafi in the face of American pressure is the loss of more Libyan lives. Libyans aren't like Iranians; they aren't eager for martyrdom and they aren't willing to suffer high casualties for the sake of Qaddafi's dubious ideology. Libyans feel they have already suffered enough from Qaddafi's policy of "liquidation" of his opponents at home and abroad, and more casualties in a conflict with the U.S. could tip the balance and precipitate Qaddafi's ouster.

In a year, Qaddafi is likely to be gone. But his demise won't eliminate terrorism, with its myriad causes and practitioners, nor will it resolve the very serious problems Libyans face at home. A change of regime should not therefore become an end in itself. The battle against terrorism necessarily will go on long after Qaddafi has left the scene, and Libyans will struggle for years to untangle Qaddafi's legacy.

The political future is cloudy in part because the Libyan opposition is so diverse and disorganized. The progressive radicalization of politics during Qaddafi's almost 17 years in power prompted a series of defections from the regime, creating several generations within the opposition -- each with very different and sometimes contradictory visions of Libya's future. In its desire to present a united front, the opposition has avoided the sort of wide-ranging political debate that would produce winners and losers; as a result, virtually no Libyan political or social group has conceded its right to influence Libya's future. There is a broad spectrum of discontented aspirants to political influence: from monarchists to social democrats, religious leaders to secular radicals.

Libya's political future is also complicated by the fact that half the population is under 15 years old; that is, they were born after Qaddafi came to power. There is considerable popular skepticism about the Third International Theory in Libya. But it is regularly taught in school -- to the exclusion of most conventional political theory -- and it continues to find adherents among the rebellious and the disadvantaged. Qaddafi is no longer a charismatic figure in Libya, but he and his revolution retain their share of followers among the sycophants and the ideologically convinced.

All of these groups -- opponents and admirers, intellectuals and opportunists -- can be expected to compete for the succession to Qaddafi, and the competition may well grow violent as the contenders sort themselves out. Short of an outright military defeat at the hands of a foreign power, the only plausible source of a change in regime is the military. As Qaddafi himself illustrates, a regime born in a military coup is volatile and unpredictable, particularly when it doesn't represent any particular social class or political persuasion. The potential for violent solutions of political disagreements will remain great in post-Qaddafi Libya, partly because Libyans have for so long been deprived of political freedoms.

None of Qaddafi's potential successors could hope to establish political legitimacy if it appeared that they had come to power as a result of American pressure. Few would even be willing to try. Libyan disenchantment with Qaddafi is viewed by most Libyans as an internal affair, not appropriately subject to American resolution. Indeed, it is a measure of Libyan nationalism (and perhaps of American incompetence) that the United States has been unable to find or create an indigenous opposition to Qaddafi comparable to the Nicaraguan contras; certainly it does not reflect Libyan satisfaction with the regime.

The Reagan administration, in its enthusiasm to rid the world of Qaddafi's nefarious influence, risks becoming involved in a political and perhaps military conflict that may undercut its long-run goal of changing the Qaddafi regime. The American isolation of Libya has already enhanced the position of the Soviet Union, for example, by providing opportunities in the economy previously held by American businesses. Like the Soviet military advisory relationship, these growing economic ties may encourage the Soviets to support a "pre-emptive" coup on the part of sympathetic military officers. Presumably, this isn't an outcome the Reagan administration would favor.

American policy appears to be bent on ousting Qaddafi come what may. Yet in the short run, this campaign of intimidation serves simply to strengthen Qaddafi and prolong his rule. In the long run, the Libyan-American confrontation may indeed promote a coup -- but by a pro-Soviet, anti-"imperialist" successor. Whatever sort of coup topples Qaddafi, recent events guarantee that the new leaders will have to bend over backwards to prove they aren't American puppets.

Qaddafi probably would have fallen last year if it hadn't been for America's misguided policy of confrontation. American policy, paradoxically, has been strengthening a regime near collapse. If the United States truly wants to see a change of regime in Libya, it's time to let the Libyans themselves topple a government they intensely dislike -- without help from the Sixth Fleet.