A Reagan administration official said today that the French government is engaging in "total disinformation" in charging that the United States has been seeking to use France as a surrogate combatant against Libya in the war in Chad.
The official also strongly disputed a reported accusation by French President Francois Mitterrand, made in an unattributed but officially confirmed interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, that the United States had failed to consult with France before sending airborne warning and control system (AWACS) reconnaissance planes to Chad's neighbor, Sudan. In fact, the U.S. official said, France had specifically requested the deployment of the AWACS.
"Mitterrand's in real trouble at home and he's pounding us to get off the hook," the Reagan administration official said. "There is no truth to his charges. The French asked us to send the AWACS. And they're the ones who haven't consulted, on planning, military forces or anything else."
Officials said the Reagan administration has not been pressing France to fight a war with Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi on behalf of the United States but has wanted France to exercise its own "historic responsibility" for Chad.
"It is not our primary sphere of influence," President Reagan told reporters last week. "It is that of France."
The administration official who charged that the French are disseminating "total disinformation" spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name and gave a blunter assessment than White House spokesman Larry Speakes provided here today. Yet even Speakes's formal response, framed for its diplomatic impact, betrayed the Reagan administration's growing irritation with Mitterrand.
"We regret this apparent misunderstanding," Speakes said at the White House briefing held here each day while Reagan vacations at his nearby ranch. "We have consulted fully on a daily basis during the entirety of the problem with numerous French government and military officials at the highest level."
In response to a reporter's question, Speakes said the phrase "the highest level" referred to Mitterrand.
Speakes added that "The AWACS were deployed with prior consultation and full knowledge of senior French government officials."
U.S. officials portrayed Mitterrand as making a scapegoat of the Reagan administration because of the French president's domestic political problems. As an opposition leader, Mitterrand had been critical of France's past interventionist role in northern Africa.
The United States, whose military forces have been stretched thin by deployments in the Middle East and Central America, would like France to play its customary role in Chad.
Reagan implied this in his statement to reporters a week ago about Chad being in the "sphere of influence" of France rather than the United States. "We remain in constant consultation with them," Reagan said then, "but I don't see any situation that would call for military intervention by the United States there."
On Tuesday, Mitterrand complained in the Le Monde interview, which the newspaper attributed only to "those who had the privilege of hearing the president privately," that the situation in Chad "would have been much less complicated if the United States had not weighed so heavily in the balance."
Le Monde said Mitterrand did not want to be associated with efforts to overthrow Qaddafi, "toward whom he harbored neither hostility nor surliness."
The newspaper said Mitterrand had received several letters from Reagan in recent weeks and had been "irritated at the constant attempts at pressure."
Asked about this here today, Speakes said, "I just refuse to accept the term 'pressure.' "
Reagan administration officials expressed concern that Mitterrand wants no part of fighting Qaddafi at all, even though the French have sent about 1,000 troops to assist the embattled Chadian government of Hissene Habre. The rebel forces of Goukouni Oueddei, backed by the Libyans, now hold northern Chad.
Administration officials said the French have told them so little they don't know if France would be content to achieve a negotiated settlement at this point or whether they share the U.S. goal of having Chad's territorial integrity restored.
Asked whether the United States would like to see the Libyans driven out of Chad, Speakes replied, "I don't think we'd be quite that blunt. We'd like to see the Libyans withdraw to the internationally recognized borders."