ANNABA, ALGERIA -- It is a cold laugh now, completely disconnected from humor or sympathy. Behind this shield of derisive laughter, a very different Moammar Gadhafi dismisses questions he considers ridiculous, illogical or extraneous to the perfect world he says he has created in Libya.

His eyes are sunken, his face lined and darker, all of the once youthful allure gone. Gadhafi has opened Dorian Gray's international division.

An exasperated sigh rises when he is asked how he came to go to war with the United States. It is all the fault of the Jews, he explains. His intepreter, a diplomat, seeks to soften this remark by substituting the word "Zionists" in English.

"Jews," Gadhafi insists in Arabic. "American Jews," he specifies.

"American Jews," says the interpreter, "focused all their pressure on the American administration to turn against me because I support the Palestinian people."

That is how I came to know that Gadhafi has been brushing up his English if not his humanitarianism. At another point in an interview here this week, he made a distinction for his interpreter between "concentrated in" and "manifested in" in English.

Fifteen years ago in my first interview with him such linguistic subtleties were not in his reach. And he still laughed in a manner suggesting spontaneity, even if challenged as he outlined his plans to remake the world.

Americans debated then if he was crazy like a fox, or just crazy. He was a fresh-faced gunslinger, enthralling his nation by challenging the mightiest nation in the world to a shootout over its Middle East policy. His hands were bloody, but he had not yet embarked on total support for terrorism.

"At that time I was against some of the positions of the Soviet Union and I condemned some of these positions publicly," Gadhafi recalled this week. "But after that I found myself needing to be a friend of the Soviet Union to face up to the continuous American aggression against us. In this case the Soviet Union won and America lost."

Some loss. It was in fact Gadhafi's sheltering of Palestinians who plotted the murder of two American diplomats in Khartoum in 1973 that ended chances of a nonhostile relationship.

Gadhafi set out on a course that transformed him into a cartoon character instead of a national leader, wearing for Americans the blackest of hats. His defeats and his uncontrollable rage rendered pointless the debate about the proportions of cunning and craziness in his acts and words.

He has not just been overtaken by events but backed into a corner by them. His unity projects have collapsed. Terrorist raids have turned the world against the Palestinian groups he supports. A Palestinian revolt burns in Gaza and the West Bank but he has no role in it.

The approaching end of the Reagan years makes Gadhafi seem even more to be yesterday's man. What will the "flake" do without the "mad dog"?

As Gadhafi noted during the 90-minute conversation, Ronald Reagan's exaggerated and inconsistent attention to Libya helped keep the spotlight in recent years on the brother colonel, Gadhafi's preferred title. He kept his starring role thanks to Reagan's script.

It now appears that it was Gadhafi's weaker air defenses that made Libya the only target for U.S. retaliation after the terrorist bombing of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin. Evidence continues to accumulate that Syrian agents were at least as deeply involved in the blast as were the Libyans, who may have been caught taking more credit than they deserved.

Given Syria's strong air defenses, Gadhafi was the perfect villain, weak, marginal and despicable. Even now, in contrast to the continuing heavy U.S. campaign to keep Gadhafi in quarantine, the State Department's top-ranking Middle East expert, Richard Murphy, has been in Damascus this week meeting Syrian officials.

The distinction U.S. policy makers are making between Libya and Syria on the La Belle bombing may be nothing more than Realpolitik. But it smacks of attempting to manipulate evil in the cause of some larger good. It is a policy that resembles in that sense the hubris of the decision to ship arms to the ayatollahs.

Gadhafi deserves no sympathy, and no benefit of the doubt. He is what we think he is. But the best way to give him a new lease on life is to continue to exaggerate his importance and intentions, as the Reagan White House did. The next U.S. administration should avoid such contortions.