19 APRIL 1986, Page 9


Christopher Hitchens shows why America ignored

`wiser counsels', and wonders how its attack on Libya can bring it success in the Middle East

Washington AMERICAN political life is greatly influ- enced, at the subliminal level, by one tag and by one maxim. The tag comes from the anthem of the US marines, and expresses a cheery willingness to fight the country's battles `From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli'. The maxim comes from old Senator Arthur Vandenberg and says that 'Politics stops at the water's edge.' Between them, these two familiar quotations express the alternate interven- tionism and isola- tionism that compete for mastery in the American psyche and Which are the sub- ject for another time. They also mean, as they do at the mo- ment, that a presi- dent who launches a military operation overseas is assured of a pretty solid press, Congress and public, at least in the early stages. And this cer- tainly holds true when American jets race through the skies above those famous shores. There does come a time, after all, when the mere thought of 'wiser counsels' seems feeble and sickly. I was struck by this during the last American strike against Gaddafi, when I appeared on a chat-show With Senator John Warner. Before he became famous for marrying Elizabeth Taylor, Warner was Secretary of the Navy and inaugurated the American policy of disregarding Libya's claim to the Gulf of Sidra. But he was in what George Shultz has witheringly called a Hamlet mood. He pointed out gloomily that there was no direct evidence linking Gaddafi to Abu Nidal's carnage, and went so far as to say, `We should not follow the Arab code of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

I suspected then that the Senator knew as little about administration and public feeling as he did about Exodus chapter xxi, verse 24. It was certain that Gaddafi would seek revenge for the 54 Libyans just then killed by the Sixth Fleet. So that this time we do have hard evidence. In Reagan's speech to the nation, which was unusually well written and very tellingly delivered, there was no mention of Abu Nidal or of disputes over the law of the sea. Americans have been attacked in a night club — there was a second of bathos as he named the La Belle discotheque in Berlin — and the perpetrators had been caught red-handed. Who would dare propose 'wiser counsels' now? The previous weekend, the country's leading evangelist, Pat Robertson, who is contemplating a run for the Republican nomination, had publicly called for Gadda- fi to be killed. 'Arab code' or not, there would have been few demurrals if Reagan had come right out and named this as his objective.

And, however wet 'wiser counsels' look at the moment when the planes lift off, they have a way of looking sapient after the event. I am writing on the morning after, as reports are being pieced together. We do not yet know what effect the raid will have on his position inside Libya. But who can doubt that a reprisal for this affair will be devised, if not by Gaddafi then by someone else? Will the US then face, as Israel does, an endless cycle of retaliation? It is being recalled that Alexander Haig bought the Sharon plan for Lebanon, which was supposed to clean out the nests of terror and bring a new era of stability, and which seems to have done no such thing. Even before this week's events, millions of Americans had cancelled holi- days in the Mediterranean. Now on their television screens they see armed men at the White House and the Capitol, and even at airports in Maryland and Virginia. Is it conceivable that it is the American public and not the terrorists who can't hide?

While that question awaits its answer, the Middle East awaits a policy. For in effect, there is no American design for the region into which the Tripoli raid can be made to fit. The words 'Camp David' are heard no more, and the State Department is embarrassed to use the words 'peace process'. Apart from this month's brief and disastrous trip by George Bush to discuss falling oil prices, American contact with the Arab world has been shrinking.

The effusive praise from Israel for this latest operation only underlines the fact. There is, in short, a vast gap between the military power of the US and its political and diplomatic influence. This increasingly obvious point is obscure to the voters, who have become conditioned to think of the whole region and its problems as simply one of 'terrorism' — a word for which the administration has yet to provide a satis- factory definition.

Still, you know it when you see it, and Gaddafi's little expeditions against his own dissidents and others seem to qualify under any definition. And there is one unmen- tioned reason why the US is so well informed about Gaddafi's capacity for vio- lence. A brilliantly timed new book by Peter Maas, the author of Serpico, con- firms that the Libyan dictator got the beginnings of his arsenal from the CIA. In the late 1970s, two men named Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil, formerly promin- ent in the Agency's dirty tricks and covert operations wing, who were bored with living on their salaries, went into business on the side. Wilson arranged for an aero- plane to fly from Texas to Tripoli, carrying over 21 tons of C-4 explosive. C-4 is an unusually powerful and versatile material. It contains the extremely potent RDX ingredient, which is why it is subject to draconian export controls, and it can be made in sheets only a quarter of an inch thick. It can also be cut into any size or shape. It seems that the bomb on the TWA jet was made from this stuff, as was the charge in the Berlin disco.

Wilson went on to raise a force of over 100 ex-marines and Green Berets who went to the shores of Tripoli, but who went in order to train Gaddafi's personal strike force. Frank Terpil concentrated more on the small arms side. It was he who supplied the American guns found in the Libyan `People's Bureau' in London after the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, while Wilson procured the murder of a Libyan exile in Colorado. Until a dedicated pro- secutor got on their case, the two men had incredibly been certified by the FBI as `having committed no prosecutable crimes'. Read Peter Maas's Man Hunt if you ever doubt that the Middle East really is more complex than it looks. Bear in mind, also, that C-4 explosive has a shelf life of 20 years and that not even Gaddafi has found a way of using up 21 tons of the stuff.

The more reputable elements in the CIA have done a profile of Gaddafi and have reported to the President that he is clinical- ly insane. Though this diagnosis has been used by Westerners in the past to excuse their treatment of people like Nasser and Mossadeq, it may well apply to this case. If so, it rather reduces the force of Reagan's prime justification, which is that Gaddafi must never doubt American willingness to use force. On that point at least the Colonel never seems to have had any delusions. It may be self-deceptive for Americans to identify all dislike for them- selves as stemming from mental disorder. For such an apparently momentous event, then, the Tripoli operation has been curiously barren of 'lessons'. We know nothing much that we did not know before, and the landscape of the Middle East remains drearily unchanged. We will prob- ably become better acquainted with the capacities of C-4 in the fairly near future. In American political terms it has has been proved for the second time in this adminis- tration that the best way to get public support for military action is to conduct it. That, plus the exhilarating discovery that you can tell allies rather than ask them, is likely to be the abiding lesson here.