An F111 BOMBER is a crude anti-terrorism weapon, but it worked surprisingly well against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
The American bombing raid against Libya three months ago didn't stop terrorism, to be sure. There were several gruesome attacks this past week, and there will probably be more next week. Terrorism is likely to remain with us, in some form, as long as there are people in the world with grievances and access to weapons.
But the Libya raid did accomplish some startling -- and very beneficial -- changes in Libya, the Mideast, and Europe. In the process, it deflated much of the conventional wisdom in Washington about the risks of dealing aggressively with Gadhafi. Specifically, contrary to nearly universal predictions:
The American raid didn't bolster Gadhafi at home; he seems to be less popular now than ever, and his regime may be on the verge of collapse.
The raid didn't push Gadhafi further into the arms of the Soviets. Instead, Moscow seems to be giving him the cold shoulder.
The raid didn't force the Arabs to rally around Gadhafi. They paid lip service to him, but Gadhafi hasn't received a penny in badly needed financial support from his Arab brothers.
The raid didn't destroy America's relations with its European allies. Instead, after dragging their feet for years in dealing with the Libyan problem, the Europeans finally found their courage in the days after the raid and took steps that have hobbled Libyan terrorist operations in Europe.
"The healthiest effect of all from the raid is to show the silliness of a lot of the cliches about Gadhafi," said one of the administration officials who planned the operation.
But the Reagan administration shouldn't pat itself on the back just yet. At this point, it has only half a policy for dealing with Middle East terrorism. It has a stick, but no carrots. Indeed, because the United States currently appears uninterested in the Arab-Israeli peace process, it may well squander whatever benefits it has gained from the Libya raid.
What's missing is an American strategy that can provide the Arab world with an alternative to Gadhafi's radicalism. That means helping our friends in the Middle East, as much as punishing our enemies. But in friendly countries -- in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia -- the United States today is regarded as an aloof and often unreliable ally -- without a coherent, long-run strategy for resolving the tensions of the Middle East.
The April 14 raid, while hardly a substitute for a Mideast policy, remains a striking success. It broke the psychology that had allowed Gadhafi to intim-idate much of the world and revealed that, far from being an international giant, Gadhafi was weak, isolated and vulnerable. So vulnerable, in fact, that American warplanes were able to operate freely within his own, heavily defended airspace.
The raid hasn't halted Libyan terrorism, but it certainly has curbed it. That's largely because the American action led European nations to get tough with Libyan terrorist network in Europe.
In the three months since the raid, the Europeans have expelled more than 100 Libyan diplomats and businessmen and curbed the use of Libyan "Peoples Bureaus" as centers for terrorist operations. "Most of the Libyan intelligence people in Europe have been kicked out. Not all, but most," says a State Department official.
"Their whole terror apparatus seems to be in disarray," explains another U.S. official. "If they persist, it will be through surrogates, in an attempt to hide their hand. This will reduce the volume of terrorism."
This official notes that while the Libyans may engage in terrorism again, it won't be on the scale they seemed to be embarking on early this year. At that time, U.S. intelligence learned that Libya had ordered its "Peoples Bureaus" to mount terrorist attacks in about a dozen cities, including: Vienna, Belgrade, Munich, Paris, Ankara, Khartoum, Bangui (in the Central African Republic), and Nouakchott (in Mauritania).
The raid has also hurt Gadhafi at home. U.S. officials believe that the American attack, rather than leading Libyans to unite around their embattled leader, has helped foster internal dissension and political instability.
"The bombing has set in motion domestic currents that will eventually lead to Gadhafi's overthrow," says one official who carefully follows U.S. intelligence about Libya. He notes reports of bickering within the "Revolutionary Committees" that help run Libya, rumors that Gadhafi's deputy Abdul-Salaam Jalloud is jockeying for power, and reports of a feud between members of Jalloud's tribe and Gadhafi's tribe.
"We stimulated an extraordinarty degree of dissension and revealed widespread distrust of him," says a high-level administration official. He notes "signs of mumbling and grumbling all over," especially within the Libyan military.
U.S. officials believe that Gadhafi himself has suffered a severe psychological blow. One official quotes from a recent U.S. intelligence report that describes the atmosphere of suspicion and anxiety in Libya today:
"Gadhafi moves frequently from place to place . . . . He keeps those around him off balance by moving them from office to office . . . . He appears to be depressed and exhausted . . . . He reviews everything personally . . . . His aides have been accused of plotting against him."
The officials won't discuss what the U.S. is doing covertly to foster political instability and a change of regime in Libya.
The most surprising outcome of the April raid is that it hasn't led to increased support for Gadhafi from his putative friends in Moscow and the Arab world. Instead, officials in these countries seem nearly as wary of Gadhafi as Washington is.
"The Soviets made a calculated decision not to get in our way," says a senior administration strategist. A State Department official adds that when Europeans warned him that the American raid might push Gadhafi to join the Warsaw Pact, he just laughed: "You think they want him?"
Just as this official expected, when Gadhafi sent Jalloud to Moscow shortly after the raid to seek Soviet assistance, the Soviets treated him coolly.
Arab leaders, many of whom have been threatened by Gadhafi's agents, have also kept their distance from him. Even radical Syria, Gadhafi's nominal ally, tried in the weeks after the American raid to assure the United States that it was opposed to international terrorism.
Bombing Libya was an ugly act, made all the sadder by the reported death of Gadhafi's adopted daughter and other civilians. But it achieved a useful purpose if -- by raising the cost of terrorism -- it began to change the political balance in the Middle East away from radicalism and toward moderation.
The Reagan administration strategist argues: "The way to strengthen the Arab moderates is to show that radical policies fail. The way to hurt the moderates is to let radicals like Gadhafi get away with murder."
That's right. But it's only half of the solution. To strengthen the moderates, we also need a credible Mideast peace policy.
David Ignatius, an associate editor of The Washington Post, is editor of the Outlook section.