LIBYA IS PLAYING a cynical game, first doing its formal international duty by asking Iran to let the American hostages go and then courting the Islamic gallery by unleashing a mob on the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. The embassy had just made a fresh request for protection. Uniformed people, in a place where spontaneous demonstrations come as frequently as snow, were in the mob. The government then had the gall to complain about the tear gas released automatically when the mob broke in. (In Pakistan, students now demand that the American ambassador be tried for the "murder" of a student killed -- not by Americans -- in the assault on his embassy!)

Libya is the third Islamic country in a month in which American embassies have been overrun. Neither Pakistan or Libya publicly conducted and condoned the seizure, as Iran did, but their performance has betrayed at the least a reluctance to spring as quickly as possible and necessary to the relief of endangered Americans. Even before the incident in Libya, the State Department had decided to reduce the American profile in 11 Islamic countries out of fear that Americans there might not be protected adequately. Some of the 11 complained that the State Department warning conveyed little confidence in their capacity to run their countries. Yet some of these same governments now indicate with a hurt shrug that it is more than a little unreasonable of Washington to ask them to brave the wrath -- the understandable wrath, it is hinted -- of their aroused masses.

In various quarters one hears the suggestion that a "wave" or "tide" of Islamic fervor is washing across the Middle East and that the United States is the natural target of -- if not because of its policy in Iran, then because of the cultural and social disruption brought by American-sponsored modernization, or because of American support of Israel. There is at once a grossness and a false seductiveness to this analysis. No doubt deep currents are stirring in the Mideast (where are they not?) and no doubt the United States has something to do with them. But the concept of a "tide" conceals a host of national distinctions and personal choices. It is absurd to hold the United States culpable, actively or passively, for every Middle East rash. Moreover, an appreciation of the growing pains and political bends of modernizing countries cannot be allowed to blot out the responsibility of their governments for certain minimal duties -- in this instance, the protection of diplomats. An official cop-out is no "Islamic tide."