For many in the West, Chad is less a poor African country with many miseries -- although it is that -- than a chart of Col. Qaddafi's fever. For years the Libyan leader has dabbled in aggression and subversion in the vast territory of his neighbor to the south, and now he seems to be tormenting Chad again. Reports tell that rebels he armed have attacked across the "red line;" Chad's French protectors have responded by bombing a rebel airfield in the north, and a Libyan plane has responded to that by dropping a single bomb on a government airport. The French are reinforcing, and the United States is expediting already planned aid.

Chad's ethnic rivalries have kept a civil war sputtering since independence and inclined both sides to reach out for foreign patrons. France, the former colonial power, has accepted a latter-day responsibility to settle the country down. Libya, playing a neocolonialist role, has used the tension to meddle. Thus does Col. Qaddafi display, to an African gallery, the elements of egotism and violence that mark his policy elsewhere. It is done in Chad on a small scale appropriate to a poor, backward country, but it is done even there.

Col. Qaddafi is making his latest move in Chad at a moment of supposedly high tension with the United States, whose ships have been taking part in maneuvers off the Libyan Mediterranean coast. Is it not odd that he would choose this moment for another fling in Chad? Or is it the Libyan's way of diverting attention from his self-imposed obligation to confront the Sixth Fleet? It is difficult at any given moment to read Col. Qaddafi's mind. It is necessary to be wary of what he does.